PM Articles > Geof Lory > Behavioral Traceability: Values to Principles to Practices

Behavioral Traceability: Values to Principles to Practices

by Geof Lory

One of the first things I do when working with project teams is to help them establish a Team Operating Agreement. A good Team Operating Agreement outlines the Values, Principles, and Practices the team members explicitly agree to and intend to hold themselves and each other accountable to. This living document eventually captures what I define as team culture: what most of the people are doing (or at least have agreed to be doing) most of the time.

The TOA, also referred to as the Rules of the Road or Code of Conduct, is unfortunately often heavier on the rules than the underlying values and principles. Why do we struggle so much with articulating fuzzy concepts values and principles, when it's so easy to document the rules? Perhaps it is because principles seem too abstract compared to practices, and values can start to sound a lot like Mom and apple pie. In reality, Values, Principles, and Practices always align because they are derived from each other, intentionally or not. Understanding their relationship will help us see that alignment more clearly.

Values are the Bedrock for Principles

Values are the ideals, a set of deeply held beliefs about how the world should be. Values are what an organization or team embraces. These concepts become implicit in the organization's personality and culture. They form the bedrock and represent the driving forces behind the group's behaviors. Values set the stage and are a basis for making tradeoffs when there are a lot of options and possibilities. An effective organization uses values to identify relevant principles that then guide practices.

Principles Bring Action to Values

If values are the internal beacon that guides us, principles take values and put them into action.

If values are the internal beacon that guides us, principles take values and put them into action. Principles are the fundamental truths arising from values, experience, and knowledge, on which we base our actions and thinking. Principles are simply a set of measurable guidelines for behaviors to live by, considered true until proven otherwise. Principles define empirically measurable evidence of the values without being directive. They turn the why into the what but don't specify the how. Without these conjoining principles, the behavioral gap between values and practices would be difficult to bridge.

Principles are more like the laws of reality. Because principles are empirically measurable, we can relate to them explicitly. Even though you may not be able to describe them fully or understand how they work, they always work, and therefore you find them valuable.

Principles Are Timeless, Practices Are Situational

While principles provide overall direction and can be universally applied, practices are subjective and depend largely on context. Even when the practices are "best practices" they are best within a given environment or context. In today's dynamic and changing project environments, practices need to change to meet the circumstances and conditions while maintaining alignment with the more permanent principles or they won't be "best" -- or even valuable.

It is the principle behind the practice that really matters.

If you were to blindly follow any practice and not apply that practice in a way that brings out the underlying principle, any benefit would be fleeting and unsustainable. The problem is, applying the practice itself in no way assures the benefit of its underlying principle. It's not the practice that is effective, it is the principle behind the practice that really matters.

Values, Principles, and Practices Traceability

So how do these terms tie together, especially in a Team Operating Agreement? A practice works in a given context due to an underlying principle that is based on a universally accepted value. Let's call this sequence behavioral traceability.

In traditional software development, there is a lot of focus around requirements traceability. We want to know that the tests are related to the code which is related to the specification which is related to the requirement which was asked for by the business. (You can add more steps in that chain depending on how onerous your methodology is.) I have always struggled with this particular traceability, as it seems like a lot of work just to cover your behind, but I do agree with the alignment aspect of it.

What I find more interesting is that organizations will rigorously implement requirements traceability while the relationship between behavioral practices, principles and values receives little or no attention. We end up blindly follow practices that are not aligned to stated principles or values. The practice of requirements traceability itself may be the poster child for such unconscious lemming practices, but I'll save that rant for another article.

Principles Expose the Intent of the Values

To bring consciousness to this chain, we need to think about intent. Intent is the thread that strings practices to principles and principles to values. Understanding our intent keeps us from deceiving ourselves as to whether we are living by our stated principles and values or not. The Team Operating Agreement is the mechanism for being explicit about our intent and alignment.

When people experiment with and develop new behaviors -- let's take implementing Agile for instance -- the first thing they learn is all the process oriented practices and rules. They practice the rituals learned in a class or through coaching. They learn the mechanics of iteration planning, the daily stand ups, iteration reviews, and iteration retrospectives, and then try to replicate success by copying all those practices exactly as they were taught. The problem with this rudimentary approach is that for the practices to really be effective, they need to grow out of the Agile values and principles.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that these practices are not good or even "best practices." I'm just pointing out that if they are not initiated from and aligned with understood principles and values, they will quickly become hollow. Without the tie back to the foundational purpose, the practices can become subject to the whims of the situation. Agile coaches euphemistically refer to these behavioral misalignments as "scrum-butts." (We do Scrum, but we don't . . . .)

Why Should I Care?

For any behavior change, people learn first by practicing, and then learn to relate their practices back to principles and values. Without this relationship, the behaviors will never be self-sustaining. Without internal alignment, practices will have to be monitored by an outside party to ensure compliance. Since these external governance processes are designed to maintain the status quo, the practices will lag behind as situations and environments change. Traditional process-heavy methodologies exemplify this situation.

However, you can't just mindlessly emulate a few practices that are working for others. Every team, every organization, is different. Unless you understand the values and principles of Agile, you will struggle to adapt practices to suit your team's unique circumstances. Most of the benefit of Agile comes from its ability to help teams work effectively and efficiently regardless of all the differences. Agile is adaptable.

That's where our skills as coaches and practitioners of Agile become critical: providing the blend of value-based, principle-guided, practice-grounded leadership where organizations and project teams can learn to create their own dynamic and self-sustaining principled practices.

Principled Parenting

Several years ago I authored the Agile Parenting Manifesto. It has five values and 12 principles. I wrote this manifesto because I wanted to be intentional and explicit about how I tied the values and principles to my practices as a parent. I wanted to hold myself accountable to behavioral traceability. If you have read any of my prior articles on parenthood, you know that being explicit and intentional are big themes for me, so it's no surprise that they are woven into this discussion on principled practices too.

The first principle of the Agile Parenting Manifesto states: Consistent traceability of practices to purposes assures integrity of word and deed. We practice what we preach and preach what we value, and our children observe this. This principle ties back to one of the basic values: Goals and Purpose over rules and processes. If we examine our practices as parents, project managers, or team members through the lens of this one principle, we could exhibit many different worthwhile practices, some that may not even be commonly thought of as "best practices."

I know that I have not always made the best decisions as a project manager or a parent, and God knows I have often strayed from many commonly held "best practices." But I would like to think that, right or wrong, I made those decisions consciously and with intentional purpose. In the long run, it has served me well. I know it will serve you well, too.

I have received several requests for a sample Team Operating Agreement. I have included a link to a sample of a very simple Team Tri-Fold we use in our Agile Practitioners Simulation class that includes a Team Operating Agreement. Hopefully it will stimulate some thoughts and your teams will spend more energy on mindful behavioral traceability in the future.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I'd love to see the sample Team Operating Agreement, but the link above directs to

Nice article Geof. I think I'll use this structure instead of a "team manifesto" in a team I'm currently coaching.

I'd like to see the sample TOA, but can't find it. Can you point me to it?

Thanks again for the helpful post.

We have added a link to the Team Tri-fold. You will find it when you click on the link to the Agile Practitioners Simulation class.

The comments to this entry are closed.

©Copyright 2000-2017 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy

Stay Connected
Get our latest content delivered to your inbox, every other week. New case studies, articles, templates, online courses, and more. Check out our Newsletter Archive for past issues. Sign Up Now

Got a Question?
Drop us an email or call us toll free:
7am-5pm Pacific
Monday - Friday
We'd love to talk to you.

Learn more about ProjectConnections and who writes our content. Want to learn more? Compare our membership levels.