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Just a Document?

Working with a couple of groups that are striving for a certificate in Project Management, we have run into an interesting situation. While the deliverables that contribute to the grading in the course focus on hard-skills implementation of a realistic, but simulated, project (most have selected to go with a PMO implementation), the one document they produce that is not directly part of the grading is turning out to be the most relevant to the success of many of the teams. It is their team agreement.

I have written about the team agreement before, and I know that there is a wide range of viewpoints in the industry. For reasons that are not surprising, many people see this as a waste of time, a useless document that is full of flowery language, and can be dismissed along with many vision statements that are found in lobbies around the world. Indeed, for most of the teams in this course, it would seem that the viewpoint is not far from this. It is seen as an interesting diversion and generates some fun discussion about personalities, but we have real work to do: we have an assignment due that is going to be graded.

Usually, the team agreement is left at that, and the teams dive into the rest of the program with varying degrees of success - particularly if you include the well-being of the team in this definition of success. By the end of the course, it is pretty clear that there are some team members that are quite ready to remove the contact information of their teammates from their contact list. I would suggest that there is a correlation to how well they did on their graded assignments as well.

This time around, we have added a twist to the program. Having observed that a small percentage of participants can sour their teams by not actively participating in the work, we have injected a 360 degree feedback after each submitted assignment. Indeed, if the feedback is weak enough from their peers, a person's grade on that assignment could be adversely impacted. We're just finishing off the first implementation of this feedback, and it is exposing some significant challenges.

Usually, the teams progress through the team agreement with what I would suggest is a false sense of security that they have quickly and painlessly managed to get to the stage of performing as a team. That storming stage never seemed to appear at all! What has actually happened, in most cases, is that the team has mistaken the team agreement as a mask, and any underlying issues tend to stay there, never to be brought to the surface.

Well, the 360 degree feedback exposes for many teams that they are still in the storming stage, whether they would like to admit it or not. For all the comments in the team agreement about open communication and any admonishment that the team must have fun, any feedback that is less than stellar can easily upset that apple cart. Even though the vast majority of the feedback was positive, and any negative feedback was clearly still a long way from venomous, several of the teams descended into chaos. Several people were quite offended at the observations that others had made, and some were surprised that this feedback had not been provided in a face to face manner.

Which raises a couple of issues that teams need to address. It is clearly insufficient to hack together a team agreement and think the job is done. No team can assume they are faring well, that they are a well-performing team, until they have managed to get through a phase of conflict unscathed. Until then (and possibly afterwards as well), there remains a significant risk that the team can collapse with conflict.

If the team agreement is intended to help a team manage through crisis, there are a couple of things that should be discussed and agreed upon that are not often dealt with. Feedback needs to be open and honest, of course, but also frank and forthright. There needs to be room to be able to provide this in a face to face manner. This feedback should include the positive as well as the concerns, and any concerns should include some discussion of how these may be resolved. In other words, we need to avoid purely negative feedback, it needs to be provided with a goal of strengthening the team overall.

The discussions around the team agreement (after all, the team agreement is simply the minutes of the important discussions that you have had, isn't it?) should include how to give reasonable feedback, but how to take feedback as well. When we receive feedback, we need to see it as a data point. We can choose to be offended by this data, we can choose to 'shoot the messenger', or we can try to find the kernel within the data that supports improved relationships.

These discussions are never over at the beginning of the project when we have produced that document. In fact, if you think you have finished with your team agreement by producing a document (rather than having the deep discussions), be prepared to deal with conflict sometime in the future, when your team really does run into trouble.

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