Growing an agile team with norms of conduct
I have seen numerous newly formed teams struggling to get into a performing stage. You’ve probably been in situations where, in meetings only a few people are really involved and the rest is just physically present, or people are feeling insecure to hold each other accountable for promises and just keep silent, people who are not listened too when team matters are discussed, decisions everybody thought where made but people do not follow up on them or my favorite one useless discussions where nothing gets decided.
In such situation creating norms of conduct could help a team move forward.
A norms of conduct for me is a social agreement that the team members create in which they describe what they value and how they want to work together.
Such a social agreement expresses three things.
- Promises – the team members commit to certain actions and behaviors
- Rewards – the team members get the things they value
- Acceptance – the team members take responsibility to act according to the promise
A social agreement is great for agile teams because team members define how they work and therefore influence their future as a team. They are self-organizing because they created the agreement and they can freely choose to agree with it or not! The social agreement provides safety because people can refer to it when tension rises in conversations and situations. With the guidance and extra safety of the norms of conduct people are encouraged to behave constructively.
How teams make decisions, hold each other accountable, provide feedback and what it values determines the teams’s success. Having no social agreement puts a team in the danger zone, especially newly formed teams. Mature teams often have social agreements that probably emerged without the team even knowing it.
But what is a team value?
In agile we have values that we prefer. These values could be things like respect, courage, openness, focus and commitment.
A team value is what a team likes or dislikes in certain situations. Values are the criteria the team uses to decide what to do and how team members feel about certain events and situations.
So for example lets assume the team members agree that everybody should contribute in decision making. This means that they could value active participation of everybody in a decision making process, they could value that the team members give each other the space and time to contribute in discussions and that everyone’s opinion receives serious consideration. The team could not value, not letting team members speak and interrupting people when they speak, not asking for clarification to really understand what others are saying and checking your email during a meeting.
How do you create a social agreement?
A social agreement is best created during a workshop. It could be an explicit meeting, I call them Team Ethics meeting, or it could also be the first retrospective. In the meeting I facilitate a workshop and help the team come up with the social agreement.
I start with discussing the situation they are in, make it visual using a team maturity or growth model and discuss the importance of such a agreement and show some examples of other teams.
Next thing is for everybody to brainstorm and come up with a list of values, behaviors, ideas that they think will help create a great team. After some affinity diagramming I try to categorize them into the agile values or general team topics like behavior in meetings, expectations on accountability, providing feedback and decision making.
The next step is to facilitate discussion about the affinity groups using the agile values and general topics and come up with a few statements for each group. You can now place the social agreement somewhere where everybody can see it daily and refer and adjust it when you need.
With a social agreement in place the team can finally focus on producing software and improving and stop wasting time, energy and intellectual capabilities of its members with unproductive collaboration.
Remember that the physical social agreement is great but the discussion itself is where most of the value is.