Most teams never explicitly state how they commit to working together. They just start working and may eventually get better. I’ve found, however, that teams can get better faster if they spend some time up front talking about their working agreements. Here are some examples:
- When a group assembles for the first time, people might be afraid of showing what they don't know, and will spend more time than make sense being stuck on something they can't figure out. Having an operating agreement "If we need help we ask for it, and if someone asks for help, we help" can help break down that reluctance to admit you don't know something. The operating agreement is just the start. The people with the courage to ask for help (and risk looking bad) help to create the culture in which mutual support is the norm. The operating agreement opens the door to new behavior.
- The first time the build breaks, does the developer know what to do? Ignore it? Wait until stand-up? If there is an operating agreement up front that says, "If the build breaks, we swarm the problem until it is resolved", the developer and the rest of the team know what to do.
There are a variety of exercises that teams can conduct to make these agreements more explicit. Here is one I’ve been using lately that I like quite a bit. By the end of the exercise the team has promised to each other how they collectively commit to operate. Depending on the size of the team, this can take an hour to an hour and a half. I’ve named this the “You Can Count on Me” exercise. Teams I’ve done this with feel they’ve benefited from the experience and say they would do it in the future for other teams they join.
This is also a good exercise to do with a team that’s already working together since it can help them make explicit choices to tune their performance.
All you need for the exercise is the whole team, 3x3 sticky notes and felt-tip pens. If some people will be remote from the primary location, you’ll also need.
- A chat session for remote participants to provide their input
- People who are willing to write down that input from remote team members on post-its so they can be shared in the room
- A video camera you can aim at a wall where you’ll be putting the post-its
Having the whole team is critical. You’re going work to develop agreements that everyone on the team is willing to commit to follow. If someone isn’t part of the exercise, you don’t know if they’ll honor those agreements or not since they had no say in their creation.
How it’s Facilitated
Here’s a high-level timeline. The more people and remote participants, the more time you’ll need. Since this is such a valuable and critical exercise, I’d take the full ninety minutes if you can get it. You can always stop if you finish early.
Here’s a way to introduce the exercise.
“If you were to join a new team, what could you count on your team members for?”
See what people have to offer. Someone may offer up “nothing”, which is the point of the question.
“Ultimately you can’t count on anything, other than they have been added to the team to bring their expertise. You might have hopes and expectations, but until you’ve talked and reached an agreement, it is just hopes and expectations, not agreements or commitments. So today, to help us become a more high-performing team, we are going to get very specific about how we plan to operate as individuals and as a group. So let’s get to work”
Writing and Sorting Items
Ask everyone in the room to write down statements on individual sticky-notes like this.
You can count on me _____________.
They can write as many as they want, but ask that they only have one item written per sticky note.
I’ll usually give a few examples to get them started.
- “You can count on me to bring up difficult topics even if I find it challenging”
- “You can count on me to have agendas sent out in advance for all my meeting”
I give them five minutes to do this, but at the five-minute mark if people are still writing I ask if they would like more time.
During the time they are writing, I’ll offer ideas to help them think.
- “You can count on me to always write good unit tests”
- “You can count on me to ask for help when I need it”
- “You can count on me to offer help to others on the team”
- “You can count on me to drive stories to completion”
- “You can count on me to take an issue directly to the person I have the issue with”
- “You can count on me to be accountable for the work of the whole team, not just the work I do myself”
When they are done, ask everyone to take about three minutes to sort their items from most important for them to the least important.
Speaking and Posting Items
Start the next section by giving them the following instructions.
- “In a moment we’re going to go around the room, one person at a time, and have each person will say their top item. Just one item per person.”
- “If anyone thinks an item is worth considering as a team-wide agreement, speak up and I’ll put a dot on the item and we’ll come back to it later.”
- “For the folks on the phone, put your item into a message, and we’ll write it on a sticky note for you”.
- “Who would like to start?”
As each person gives his or her item, I post it on the wall (left to right, top to bottom).
I do this so I maintain a rough priority order. When we start to vote on items later as a team, I conduct the voting left to right, top to bottom, so that the items each person thought most important gets covered first.
Then, go around the room, one person at a time, and ask them to say whatever their top item was. Post the item on the wall and move onto the next person. When the people on the phone take their turn, have the volunteer in the room write their item on a sticky note. Continue going around the room to hear each person’s next item.
Watch the clock and finish when you run out of items or time, whichever comes first.
Voting on Items
First, I ask the room to take a look at the sticky notes on the wall and make sure the ones they want to consider for whole team practices have a dot on them. If not, I add more dots.
I then go left to right, top to bottom and have people vote on the items using fist-to-five voting. People in the room use their hands to vote, people that are remote vote using numbers via chat.
The practice is adopted without discussion if everyone votes three or higher. If anyone votes lower than three, you have a discussion until everyone votes three or higher or you realize you can’t get consensus. Then you move onto the next item.
This also continues until you run out of items or time.
Debrief and Next Steps
I talk about a few items here.
- How do you want to keep this alive over time instead of it being “something we once did”?
- What do we do with this when new people join the team?
- How do you feel after this exercise?
Effective working teams are ones that continue to improve over time. Having clear agreements, keeping those agreements and noticing when you aren’t keeping agreements and cleaning it up, are all elements of a high-performing team. Through this exercise and the ongoing rigor of reflecting on how you are operating, you continuously improve the practice of becoming a high performing team.
Have you tried this exercise or done something similar with your team? If so, have you seen results?
For more details on this exercise, please feel free to reach out to Bob Fischer or other members of our Agile Consulting Team at email@example.com. You can also learn more about our approach to Agile teams through our Agile Consulting Services.