Project Practitioners > Establishing YOUR Project Team's Culture

Establishing YOUR Project Team's Culture

By Jeff Richardson

You can tell the difference between an effective and ineffective team by simply observing ONE meeting.  The underlying set of agreements  becomes very apparent to an outsider, while team members are somewhat oblivious to how their team REALLY works because they have been immersed in 92503174the minutiae.  Just like fish don't think much about water because they immersed in it, teams become resigned to a "that's just the way it is" mentality regarding how they works interact.  Changing the way your team works together seems like a daunting task from the insiders perspective, even for many leaders.  The complexity of the relationships, urgency of the work and fear that something you say/do will make the situation worse are factors that deter most from intervening.  "How did we get here?"  is a question many individuals ask themselves as they reflect on the frustrations of attending another unproductive meeting. 

I recently sat in on a client's team meeting and was curious about the "unspoken agreements" that were at play in the room.  After working with hundreds of teams, its easy for me to notice the subtle things going on, but difficult to understand why.  Meeting agreements relate to things like - who attends, when they arrive, how they participate, who speaks, what topics are covered, how disagreements are settled and so forth.  I often use the term "team operating agreements" to refer to the extended conversations and interactions outside the meeting room that can't be ignored.  High performing teams have a seamless flow of information around the clock that fuels a trusting relationship among members.  By investing time early in the project timeline to build a strong foundation from which to build on will pay huge dividends in the long run.  Figuring out how THIS group of individuals will get comfortable dealing with conflicts BEFORE you get knee deep in requirements definition and scheduling makes a significant difference in the buy-in to those resulting documents.  But even if your team didn't get off to a great start, we'll share some insights establishing team agreements will assist any team to improve their teamwork and bottom line results.


Understanding the importance of team operating agreements has a lot to do with how the human brain interprets team interactions.  Especially in the beginning.  Research shows the very first meeting has the biggest effect on the team's final results because it's the time when each person is figuring out how they fit it.  The brain, faced with a new situation (aka project) approaches with both optimism and caution to varying degrees based on a uniquely personal set of factors that fall into 3 broad categories. 

  1. The Big Picture - project's scope, importance, timeframe, expectations and executive support
  2. My Role - responsibilities, level of challenge/stress/interest and alignment with career goals
  3. Team Dynamics - leadership, member familiarity, past experiences and team processes

ScaredHardwired for fear in new situations, the brain enters cautiously until it determines the level of safety.  New people, challenging objectives or disappointment with the assignment can all cause the brain's  limbic system to take over.  Just as if threatened by a bear, neurochemicals including cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline flood the body.  Unfortunately, this causes the prefrontal cortex (rational thinking part of the brain) to shut down, since you don't need to think when facing what the mind interprets as a 'fight or flight' decision.  Before you know it, your brain becomes unable to collaborate, let alone contribute to the conversation in a productive manner.  It takes that body more that 45 minutes to restore the neurochemical balance, so forget about being productive for the time being.

Establishing team operating agreements early on addresses a few key considerations that the brain needs resolved to determine if the situation is safe to come out and play.  David Rock's breakthrough book on practical neuroscience 'Your Brain at Work', highlights these 'hot button' issues in his SCARF
SCARFmodel.  Operating agreements address these concerns by clarifying the who, what and how aspects of team interactions.  With these primary needs met, the brain's prefrontal cortex is fully engaged in the task of understanding the project, my role and the people I'll be working with.  As the sense of safety builds, individuals become more willing to take a few risks like suggesting innovative ideas and concerns from the very beginning.  Without agreements in place, team members get lost in the task of figuring out the informal roles and rules from the "side lines", missing out on valuable opportunities to contribute to a successful start.

Instead of calling them 'ground rules', which may have a negative connotation for some, team operating agreements has a shared creation element that makes them more receptive for individuals to embrace.  The name also infers that the leader doesn't have the burden of setting and enforcing these agreements.  The leader does play a critical role in establishing the high level values from which the agreements will be based so that they align with the company culture and their leadership philosophy.  From there, allow the team to brainstorm specific behavioral and procedural agreements based on their past experiences.  Disguise the whole conversation by asking "What's worked well on other teams you've been part of?" or "What do we need to avoid to ensure group and 1on1 interactions are fun, effective and efficient?".  Team mtg succesNarrow this big list down to the critical few to focus on for the first month, with the promise that we'll follow up periodically to address "what's working" and "what's not".  Discuss these few agreements in more details to get clear on the intent and purpose as well as what to look for during team discussions.  Since this is difficult to do when YOU are engaged in the discussion, this is perfect role for other team members who don't have a vested interest in the specific topic.  Who's job is it to call out broken agreements and how that can be done respectfully?  These are important components since it related directly back to the SCARF concerns of the brain.  Embarrassing someone for a old habit that's hard to break won't help team dynamics.  Posting agreements on the wall or review at the beginning of conference calls makes it easy for any individuals help enforce the operating agreements with a gentle reminder, "I want to remind everyone that we agreed to...".

Team successWhat are the "right" agreements for your team?  Good news, there is no right/wrong answer.  Let the team decide what's most important and be flexible to modify or add agreement throughout the life of the project.  I've learned that people don't need to have ALL the items in some expert's teamwork checklist to be satisfied with their work environment, provided they have a certainty that things will continue to get better.  Systematically assess and improve to address issues as they arise or before they boil over into conflict.  Multi-cultural teams need to pay particular attention to team dynamics early on since there are so many possible areas of incongruence in the way groups typically interact.  Just like the fish not "seeing' water, we are blind to the set of automatic thoughts, actions and responses that are dictated by the predominate culture we're familiar with.  Team operating agreements establishes THIS team's culture by identifying the most important elements that our collective brains need to feel safe, satisfied and successful. 



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