Nimble Work Management
Diverse teams get great results.
If you can keep your team members from tearing each other apart, that is.
Diversity rules, but inclusion isn’t easy.
Coming from different backgrounds, team members have different ideas and expectations about rules, tools, and how to behave.
It pays huge dividends — whether you have an explicit leadership role or not — to get clear on their team’s “rules of engagement”.
Team agreements are great to make these explicit and put a stop to unnecessary drama.
Team agreements are mutually agreed “rules of engagement”, they state what is okay (and what is not) in how team members work, interact, and collaborate.
You probably already have some.
• Maybe you agreed not to hold meetings on Friday afternoon.
• Maybe you decided to avoid email and use Slack to talk about work so you have a searchable record of conversations, decisions, and solutions.
• Maybe you schedule your daily meeting at a time when everyone has had a chance to “land” — get into work mode.
Note, that team agreements are mutually agreed decisions.
This doesn’t mean all team members need be enthusiastic about every decision but everyone at least needs to support them.
Otherwise, you might as well not have a team agreement at all.
And if you find it hard to agree on anything, maybe you need to work on coming together as a team a bit more before tackling team agreements. Though, on the other hand, working together to hash out how you want to work as team can also be a great team building exercise.
So, why are team agreements so hot?
Team agreements are hot because they help teams find their groove.
Consider the following list of benefits you can expect.
You want (to be part of) a diverse team.
Because having people with all manner of different backgrounds and personalities gives you access to a whole slew of insights, worldviews, habits, ideas, practices, solutions, etc. you don’t get if everyone is similar.
The drawback is that all these differences are fertile ground for misunderstandings.
And that’s putting it mildly.
Inclusion is simple but not easy.
It means considering other people’s knowledge, skills, tastes, etc. and the behaviors stemming from them. A right challenge when they may be 180 degrees opposed to yours.
For example, you may prefer early morning meetings because they allow you to ease into the day. Someone else prefers late afternoon meetings because they prefer to do their deep work while they’re still fresh.
Figuring out a time that everyone can accept — and putting that decision in a team agreement so you can refer back to it — reduces frustration and friction.
Any team, diverse or not, will have their fair share of disagreements and even conflict.
Don’t avoid it.
The back and forth of ideas and opinions are crucial for creativity, collaboration, and innovation.
What you don’t want is the drama: the flaring tempers, name calling, and other toxic behaviors.
Agree with your fellow team members what it looks like to disagree respectfully.
For example: no interrupting.
Put what you come up with in a team agreement and agree to hold each other’s feet to the fire when someone slips up — as everyone inevitably will.
Apart from less drama, this also has the benefit of speeding up work by eliminating potential roadblocks like personality clashes and miscommunication.
Remember what it was like to join your current team?
The challenges you faced?
• Staying true to yourself while also trying to fit in?
• Figuring out who to turn to for what questions?
• Knowing who to involve in what decisions?
It’s the same for everyone joining an existing team.
When that team has a team agreement in place, finding your feet is easier, quicker, and a lot less stressful. You only have to read how your new team likes to work.
And, if it includes decisions that you find troublesome, you have something to point to start a conversation on it. After all, you’re now part of that team and have a say in how it operates.
While team agreements are the team’s “rules of engagement”, they’re much more than that.
They signal solidarity, a willingness to accommodate diverse ideas and people.
And, if you have a formal leadership role — like project manager or team lead — then getting your team to create a team agreement, shows that you’re serious about enabling to work in a way that works for them. Including how they interact with you!
A team agreement specifies the “rules of engagement” — how a team wants to execute their work and how they want to work together on that.
It can include anything and everything you and your fellow team members want.
Just be prudent not to turn it into something akin to a legal document. That would probably defeat the object of the exercise, as no one would be able to remember much of it.
Shorter is better. Aim for a single page (and no cheating with a small letter size!)
Here are some ideas you may find helpful.
As humans we tend to notice what we don’t like.
So, as a team, you’ll find it easy to list what you don’t agree on.
But not every disagreement has to be addressed immediately. Trying to address everything in a single team agreement meeting isn’t effective.
Maybe use a regular retrospective to identify the most important issues you experience as a team. Or schedule a dedicated meeting and use a retrospective format in it.
Pick one or two issues and agree on a different, more acceptable way to go about them.
Leave the rest for now. They may disappear as you work on the important ones.
Note them in your team agreement document, if you want, but rest assured that if they need addressing, they’ll rear their heads soon enough again and without any assistance from a written record.
Deciding on anything is hard, even if you’re the only one involved.
Deciding on something as a team can be exponentially harder.
At least if you think you need to reach a full consensus.
What’s important is to ensure everyone’s concerns are heard and taken into account so that everyone can support the decision even if they would normally do things differently.
So, decide on how to make decisions as a team.
For example, Roman Voting.
With this method, anyone can propose a decision, and everyone else gets to say whether they fully agree, fully disagree, or don’t care but will support it. Nay-sayers get a chance to outline how they need the proposal to change to agree. With that information, the proposer can then revise or withdraw it.
There are many other methods to get to a well-supported decision with and by large numbers of people. For self-organizing teams, Jurgen Appelo has put together a nice collection.
Pick one. Don’t think too much about it. You can always propose a new decision to replace it.
Response times are a tricky subject.
On one hand, there are situations where there’s a work emergency, like a data leak, and you need someone from your team to address this urgently. Even if it’s after hours.
On the other, you can’t expect everyone to be able to, or willing to, respond to work emails outside of work time.
And then there’s also the new hybrid reality with people working at the strangest times because that’s how they function best.
So, figure out what’s okay and what’s not. Questions to consider
• Is it okay to expect an immediate response when you send a mail?
• When and in what situation is it okay?
• When and in what situation isn’t it?
Be specific and figure out what you need in emergencies.
What platform do you want to use to communicate as a team?
• Team chat?
• Mail for x, team chat for y?
Whether it’s through email or through a dedicated communication software like Slack or an integrated environment like Nimble, you want a main platform where most, if not all, communication between team members happens.
What tools will you use as a team?
It’s helpful if everyone on your team is well-versed in using the tools that help you execute your work effectively and efficiently.
Picking the preferred tools as a team, helps you accomplish this, as everyone can then help each other master them.
When to meet and when not to meet.
That’s the question.
When everybody works in the office, when to schedule meetings is already a bone of contention. When one or more on your team works in a different location, maybe even in a different time zone, the challenges multiply.
Agreeing on one or more time slots where it’s okay to schedule meetings, brings clarity for everyone. It also allows you to plan when you can do deep work instead of seeing every day cut up into bits and pieces by meetings.
Your meetings as well as your other work both will benefit and be more fruitful.
While almost everyone will agree that toxic behavior is undesirable, plenty of people don’t readily recognize toxic behavior when they see it.
Not because they don’t care but because, unfortunately, it’s somehow become the norm.
That’s why you want to agree on the values you want expressed in how you interact with each other.
And, crucially, get specific, very specific.
Because what a value word means to people can be worlds apart.
Take showing respect and respectful communication.
Let’s say you’ve been brought up to believe that it’s disrespectful to walk away from a disagreement, no matter how intense and loud it gets.
And you work with someone who believes shouting is a sign of disrespect and you walk away from it to preserve your self-respect.
That’s not going to work out so well, when you two disagree, is it?
So, as a team, agree on what values you want to see in how you behave towards each other and paint a vivid picture of what that looks like (and what it doesn’t) in your team agreement.
Here are some tips to make team agreements work for you successfully.
Team agreements are for and by the team.
You want everyone on board with the agreements, but you can’t make everyone equally happy about everything.
So, involve and hear everyone, but don’t strive for unanimity. (See decision-making methods above.)
Don’t let your team agreement follow the sorry path suffered by most documentation.
A team agreement is meant to be a living, breathing, changing beast.
Make it ubiquitous, hard to miss, even in your face.
All vertical real estate is fair game to flaunt to your team agreement.
As said before, a team agreement is for the team by the team.
Creating it, complying with it, and imposing it are shared responsibilities.
Everyone can and should call out when someone is not following the team agreement.
No need to make a fuss out of or over it.
A simple “That’s not how we agreed to do things,” suffices.
It helps build a shared sense of accountability within the team and avoids anyone becoming the team’s (self-)appointed police officer.
Have you read your employee handbook lately? Remember much of it?
To influence behavior it’s much more effective to have a small number of guidelines.
For one because it’s overwhelming to have a lot of rules to follow. For another because it gets old very quickly if you are continually calling each other out. (See the previous point.)
So, limit your team agreement to just a handful of decisions.
It adds to the importance of the ones that make it in, and that increases their impact.
Give them a chance to prove their worth and then become ingrained before adding others.
Team agreements are a tool. They need to work for you as a team.
What sounded like a great idea may, in practice, not be so helpful.
And what worked well at one point may become obsolete or useless at another.
Eventually, any decision in your team agreement can become outdated for any number of reasons. New tools, cultural shifts in the wider organization, a new manager with a different style or needs, etc.
So, as a team, revisit and review your team agreement on a regular basis.
Let everyone feel free to challenge and question previous decisions, but make sure that you give every decision enough time to make its effects felt before tinkering with it.
Treating your team’s team agreement this way, helps create a better work environment and also shows that you value creating a safe space for questions and concerns.
As the world around us changes, and more and more people with different backgrounds enter the workforce, teams will get more diverse.
This is a mixed blessing.
While it allows for better solutions through the back and forth between viewpoints, inclusion isn’t easy and frustrations may put team members at odds.
It’s a fact of life.
But it can be managed.
Team agreements help by providing clarity about what is and what is not okay in how a team goes about its work, and how its members interact and collaborate.
They are the common ground around which teams can truly gel together and raise their performance to unimagined heights.