Once More With Feeling

What separates a great performance from an average, ho-hum performance?

In a word – “feeling”. Do you feel me?

This is true whether you’re watching a virtuoso musical performance or a game of hockey.

You can literally feel what the great performers are feeling as they crescendo their craft.

Tears flowing down the cheek of a passionate singer hitting their high notes. Sweat dripping off the end of a veteran hockey player’s nose as they scream encouragement to their line mates on the bench. Both elicit the same thing in all of us – a lump in our throats and shivers down our spines.

Good teams often create a set of working agreements to guide their behaviours towards, and interactions with each other when they engage in work together.

Working agreements” are also known as:

  • Team agreements
  • Team norms
  • House rules
  • Ground rules

It is far better to initiate agreement on a team’s rules of engagement when a team is forming than when a team is storming in the heat of a crisis. Working agreements are not only a great team building activity, they’ll also serve as an emotional lightning rod during moments of conflict. Working agreements help replace personal attacks on individuals with calling out a violation of a team’s agreed behaviours.

Working agreements can cover:

  1. How team members will show up
  2. How team members will behave with each other
  3. How the work of the team will be done

A sample set of working agreements could include:

  1. Listen first and be open minded
  2. Be supportive and acknowledge each other’s accomplishments
  3. Team members will create their own work tickets

A good set of working agreements are always developed by the team for the team. The worst set of working agreements are those developed by one person or worst yet, by someone outside the team and imposed upon the team without any discussion or debate. They resemble more so working edicts handed to the team. There is no forging of an agreement.

A great set of working agreements are not only

  • Developed by the team for the team.

They are also

  • Personalized and imbued with team member sentiments
  • Reviewed on a regular cadence to curate, refine and refactor as the team evolves and matures.

Agreeing to a regular cadence for reviewing and updating a team’s working agreements is relatively easy to do. For instance, it can be done as part of a team’s retrospective.

Getting team members to personalize a working agreement? Now, that takes a little more effort. Especially for people who are not used to sharing how they really feel. Those same people who just willingly accept and toe the line on standard one-dimensional platitudes like

  • “Be open”
  • “Speak up”
  • “Dare to be great”

Agreements and norms with no soul.

So, one day, I wanted to try something different. To run an experiment. To help one team get visceral with its working agreements. To turn a set of lifeless behaviours into a set of personal vignettes that leap off the Confluence page.

I thought about how I could encourage the team to share their thoughts on why each particular behaviour was important to the team and/or to themselves individually. What would be the benefits of behaving in a certain way?

I thought it would be fun if the team could share and discuss personal stories behind each behaviour. Borrowing from Simon Sinek’s belief that

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

Simon Sinek

Could this belief apply to how people behave? People don’t agree to a behaviour, they agree to why the behaviour is important to them.

Now, when it comes to story-telling, what better way to share stories on an Agile team than to use the concept of a User Story.

As a member of Team XYZ, we will <behaviour>, so that <benefit>

I was challenging them with “So what?” for each behaviour by having them think about the “so that…” for each behaviour.

Here are some examples of what the team came up with:

  • We will speak up at meetings, so that all ideas, thoughts and perspectives can be expressed, shared and explored with the team
  • Team members create Jira tickets, so that the person who is working on the ticket has full context and sense of responsibility
  • We will attend meetings that we have committed to and give heads-up if we can’t, so that we can avoid some repetitive discussions

Adding the “so that…” gave body, soul and meaning to the agreed behaviours. It helped anchor the agreements to the team’s stories. Stories that painted the why behind every what.

The next time you sense your team waning on their commitment to each other or their work, maybe it’s time for the team to get visceral with its agreements.

Maybe it’s time to turn team norms into team super-norms.

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