Often used by agile teams, a social contract paves the way for everyone in the team to work together better. They list the agreed ways a team will behave with each other. Typically, without a clear agreement, there’s often a lack of clarity as to how team members should interact.

Let’s face it, working together is challenging. Whether your team is new (forming and storming) or a seasoned group (performing and adjourning), working with others requires effort. Different personalities, backgrounds, and the company’s ethos influence how a team performs.

Innocent actions of one person can easily frustrate, distract, or annoy others.  While one team member may be very chatty during meetings, another may find that rude. Even behaviors with positive goals such as recognition of effort might be missing the mark.

How people interact in a meeting defines culture. From raising an opinion and being heard without judgment through to whether or not you turn the video camera on during the discussion. All form part of the norms that define the culture of a team.

One of the ways to build a positive culture is to address issues and create team agreements.

What are Team Agreements for Agile Teams?

Team agreements are the behaviours that a team promises to demonstrate when working with each other on a daily basis. They can cover a number of workplace contexts including –

  • decision making
  • meetings
  • communicating
  • information sharing
  • supporting each other

These are the ground rules for behaviour. They make it psychologically safe for everyone to participate as a team.

Here, psychological safety means that team members can share their ideas without the fear of judgement, bias, status, or authority. This allows people to focus on a project rather than worry about surviving socially.

Team agreements are usually created at the start of the project by the team. They can include things such as:

  • Using the agile retrospective prime directive as part of retros
  • Everyone has an equal voice and is a valuable contributor.
  • If you are assigned a job, you should own the task and keep it up to date.
  • Complex tickets should be discussed with the person before simply being assigned.
  • Use of code words to indicate a need.
  • Clear meeting cadence and purpose.
  • How the team communicates and works remotely, with flexible hours, or different time zones.

The Benefits of Team Agreements

There are plenty of benefits of having team agreements. They –

  • help reduce team conflict.
  • help people better manage stress and anxiety.
  • lay the foundation for cooperation, collaboration, and continuous improvement.
  • build trust and help create belonging.
  • give the team a sense of control and security.
  • build relationships within the team
  • help move the team through the Tuckman team development model.

So done right, team agreements can amplify the greatness of your team.

How to Create Team Agreements

Unsurprisingly, creating team agreements is best done with the team. It’s a collaborative process. It can be done manually in person with sticky notes. It can also be done online with a good retrospective tool.

The advantage of an online retrospective tool is the ease with which input can be kept anonymous. Again, this is to foster a psychologically safe environment in which people can share their ideas.

1. Explain the need

The first step is to explain the need for creating the team agreement. Most people will already understand the rationale but it’s a good reminder nevertheless. You can set aside some time at the start of your retrospective or have a specific meeting to talk about this.

The benefits of having a team agreement include –

  • having a way to define and improve the team’s culture
  • having clear and defined ways of working with each other successfully
  • knowing the expectations of each other and having a working understanding
  • being generally happier at work when the team gels

2. Create individual accountability

Next, ask everyone to type in a positive behaviour they think aligns with the organisation, their team, and themselves. This is what makes the agreement unique to their team and creates buy-in.

When getting people to brainstorm and add ideas, it can be helpful to give them a few sentence starters. This helps ensure that the agreements are behavioural-based and are framed in a positive way.

Here are a few suggestions –

  • You can count on me to________________
  • We can be a great team by________________
  • We can overcome some of our frustrations and issues by________________
  • One thing I love about this team is when________________
  • We can improve the way we work by________________

Each point of the agreement should be a standalone concept to keep it simple.

3. Propose agreements for discussion

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to have people propose an agreement before it is accepted. This ensures that everyone understands and genuinely accepts the agreement as opposed to it simply being a box-ticking exercise.

An online tool such as TeamRetro allows you to have the option to either have people add agreements directly to a list or to propose them to the group. If an agreement is proposed everyone else can then choose to support it (thumbs up), not support it (thumbs down) or remain neutral. This allows you to quickly see if there is consensus within the group before it is confirmed as an agreement.

4. Facilitate group discussions

Once the agreements have been shared, give everyone a chance to read through them and ask clarifying questions. You can group identical items if need be.

Facilitate a discussion and allow concerns, questions, and comments to be explored. Objections should be noted. Then decide upon which to include by voting.

Not all proposed agreements will be accepted. Talk these through with the group to ensure it’s understood why that was the case. The goal is to work through all the proposed agreements before closing the meeting.

The proposed behaviours that are accepted are the team agreements that form the social contract.

5. Reflect on the agreements

Once the agreements have been added to the list, it’s a good idea to review them. Get further comments and address any new concerns that may have come up. A good question to ask can be –

“When looking at our team agreements, how do we think it will impact the way we work together, and how does that feel?”

The feedback informs any final revisions the agreements may need.

6. Use the agreements

Finally, at the start of future meetings, it’s a good idea to quickly reference the agreements to help set the tone for your session. Alternatively, you can use it as a reflection at the end of the meeting to see if the team stuck to their agreements.

TeamRetro displays team agreements on your dashboard. This means they are always at your fingertips.

Traps to Avoid When Creating Team Agreements

1. Lack of real consensus

The most obvious trap is when not everyone in the team truly commits to the agreements.

Head nodding at the collaboration meeting can simply be that. People first need to understand before they buy-in. This means that the agreement has to make sense to them, as well as align with their values.

As we’ve touched on before, this is also why each team has to come up with its own set of agreements. Borrowing or piggybacking another team’s agreements does little to improve traction. It will only serve to reduce the sense of ownership.

If the agreements are pushed down from top-level management, this can increase the disconnect.

Having ample time to talk through concerns and address them before making them part of the final agreement is important.

2. No rituals

The agreements then need to translate into actions and daily rituals. If not, they are simply words on a page.

There may be different interpretations of the agreements. This would lead to differences in behaviors.

One way our team has managed this is to come up with code words. The code words summarise our team agreements. Here’s a sneak peek at what we do.

  • Cross-check- Team members agree that for critical, customer-facing actions a cross-check is required. A colleague of a similar role and skill will quality check and vet the work to verify accuracy.
  • Sushi time – We love having fun at work. Sometimes a bit too much. If someone says ‘sushi time’ they are asking to have focussed work time. Because we have agreed to it, no one is offended, and we quickly quieten down.
  • Bikeshed – If a topic comes up that cannot be resolved immediately then that topic is parked. The topic is put in the “bikeshed” and taken out again later for discussion.

3. Blame and shame

Team agreements can be used inappropriately. In other words, they can be used to attack or finger point.

As a scrum master, it is important to ensure that people feel safe at work. Fear has no part to play. People need to be able to own their mistakes as part of their continuous improvement.

There is an effective way to manage the misuse of the agreements. Ask people to pinpoint good examples where others have demonstrated positive behavior. However, have them reflect on themselves when asking which agreements they can improve upon.

How to Make Team Agreements Stick

1. Lead by example

As a scrum master, it’s important for you to demonstrate the behaviors in the agreement. If you start to stray, so will the team.

Make it clear that you would like someone to nudge you if you start to head off track and that you will do them the same for them.

2. Keep them in view

Make the agreements as visible as possible.

You can publish the list to Slack or MS Teams. It doesn’t matter how you do it, it’s all about reminding people of the behaviors they agreed to.

3. Revisit and revise

Over time, your team will change and so will the environment you work in. So your agreement should change too.

Having a regular cadence to revise and update the agreement will make the agreement more meaningful and keep it current.

4. Different teams, different agreements

Don’t be fooled. Each team is different, even if they have similar roles.

Make sure that each team has their own agreements that are unique and that works for them.

5. Acknowledge and recognize

Teams that demonstrate the behaviours they committed to are worth their weight in gold. Recognizing the efforts of the team regarding the agreements will help reinforce that great behaviour.

Ready to Create a Team Agreement?

TeamRetro lets you run online agile retrospective and health checks easily and effectively. It lets you create team agreements that you can refer to in future meetings. 

Agreements can be proposed by the team members anonymously and safely. Team members can indicate their support for agreements before they are accepted. Help make your teams go from good to great today!

Create a Team Agreement now