Cohesive teams share unspoken and spoken agreements which inform the way members interact and collaborate. If handled well, they help boost productivity.
Productive teams all have one thing in common: strong agreements about how they collaborate and communicate. Although the strongest agreements are often silent, there are many ways you can explicitly introduce and improve them. If you’re starting up a new team or troubleshooting one that’s flailing, make sure you’ve got strong agreements in place.
A team with strong agreements is one that establishes and adheres to a set of norms that suit most members. These include things like when they meet; how they decide what to discuss; how the team members participate in meetings; how they make decisions; and when and how they use Slack, Linear or Jira, and other tools.
If you were to ask all the individuals on a high-performing team how they raise and resolve questions, they’d all tell you pretty much the same story. They might even break it down and explain, for example, that they handle technical decisions one way and social issues a different way.
A team’s norms may reflect explicit rules or unstated habits. But in my experience, it doesn’t matter a lot whether the team has discussed their patterns or has fallen into them implicitly (or a combination); if everyone follows the sets of norms because they find them useful, that constitutes strong agreements.
Not all agreements are strong
To be sure, a team can have reliable norms around weak agreements, by which I mean team members go along with a pattern that they don’t like or find useful.
You’ve probably been on a team where one or two people dominate conversations and thus shape decisions without input from other people who have valuable perspectives. Perhaps you’ve experienced a team manager who requires they review every pull request (PR) from the group – but then they don’t perform the reviews in a timely way and hold up everyone’s work. The first of these is usually an unstated norm, and the second is usually stated – but in both cases, they make the team less effective.
Even teams with strong agreements aren’t always high performing. Other dysfunctions on your team or in your organization can prevent you from working effectively – things like lack of roadmap clarity, too many priorities, clashing personalities, or too much inexperience – which means you can have good norms and still fail as a team.
Put another way, strong agreements are necessary but insufficient for team success. Still, if your teams aren’t delivering in the ways you expect, it’s worth considering whether better agreements might be part of the solution. And if you’re establishing a team, don’t skip this important forming work.
Why do agreements matter?
It’s well established that coworkers who trust each other and feel trusted by each other, are a cornerstone of high-performing teams. While there’s research to validate this idea, you’ve probably had experiences that also corroborate this: when you believe your colleagues possess the components of trust – capability, reliability, honesty, and commitment to the common good – and you think they believe the same things about you, work can be satisfying and productive. When you don’t see those qualities in your colleagues, or you think they don’t see them in you, work tends to be harrowing and a slog.
Strong agreements help team members demonstrate and see elements of trust in each other. For example, doing the things you’ve agreed to – like showing up for meetings at the dedicated time or reviewing other people’s work within the deadlines the team has set – allows you to observe your teammates and also show that you’re reliable. Similarly, offering and accepting good ideas in meetings is one reflection of capability.
Because communication and collaboration come up every day, strong agreements can be a cornerstone of team trust. Conversely, teams with weak agreements are likely missing not only opportunities to build trust but also some of the mechanics that make it possible to reach bigger goals.
How can you improve the agreements on teams you manage or participate in?
Introducing new agreements can be straightforward. First, pick an area where the team’s lack of agreements seems to be causing a problem or leaving an opportunity unmet. Using whatever current discussion systems your team has, raise the issue and propose a new approach that you’d like to ask people to try for a specific period of time. This may be a week or a month or more. Whatever the length of time, make sure it is just long enough to assess whether the change is making a difference.
Check to make sure that other people see the problem, too, and ask for input on the solution. Discuss any details necessary to implement the best solution for the trial period. Put a date in the calendar for the end of the period to jointly review what the results have been; hold that conversation and make adjustments if necessary.
Here’s a simple example. When I’m on distributed teams of up to about seven people, I like a brief daily Slack check-in among teammates so that we have a sense of working together (even if that’s asynchronous). Messages can be short; we may share a sentence about how we’re doing and post a couple of bullets about what we’re working on that day for shared awareness.
When I first introduced this norm of daily Slack check-ins to my new team of engineering managers at my current company, I asked that we try it for a month. We discussed how to make the posts lightweight and useful, and then we put a date in the calendar to evaluate whether they were working for us. During that month, the majority of people posted on most days, occasionally trying different formats.
Still, I wasn’t sure if the engineering managers would want to keep up with each other like this, as they also had product teams they talked with every day. For them, it was potentially a lot of communication to keep on top of, and I anticipated a bit of debate about the experiment at the end. When we discussed it, however, the whole team said they found it valuable. The only tweak we made was acknowledging to each other that it was okay if, some days, you didn’t have a chance to post until pretty late in the day.
While this agreement is small, it’s one way the team has shown each other reliability and shared interest in the common good. And it was something we could do to establish trusting patterns early on. We’ve since been able to tackle meaty challenges together, like increasing the frequency of our releases and supporting each other’s work on products that are strategically important for the company.
Things to keep in mind
There are myriad nuances to establishing new agreements and lots of failure modes. Here are some things to keep in mind.
- If you’re in a leadership role on a team, your participation is key in establishing new agreements. Whether you’re the direct manager for a team, a tech lead, or a product manager, your team is unlikely to test ideas unless you encourage discussion and actively try new norms yourself.
- Don’t implement what you don’t need. Some teams need to work closely together to meet their goals; other teams need general awareness and occasional collaboration. Don’t create agreements you don’t need for the type of work at hand.
- If you’re joining an existing team, keep an eye out for existing norms, especially strong silent agreements. It can be shockingly easy to undermine successful team dynamics that are based on quietly established habits rather than stated agreements.
For instance, say you’ve just joined a team that ships good work but seems to have unbearably chaotic meetings. Before you suggest potential norms that include carefully crafted agendas and tight facilitation, ask everyone individually how the current format came to be, what’s working well about it, and what’s not working well. You may learn that these seemingly unstructured meetings let people raise problems they’d be hesitant to put on a written agenda. Perhaps this format encourages consensus-based decisions, which means the more-senior people implicitly help everyone understand decisions as they unfold. In this case, a more structured approach could actually prevent them from shipping regularly.
- Sometimes, you have to negotiate agreements. If it’s obvious that one person is dominating team discussions, you might recommend the team tries a round-robin format where everyone is asked in turn to weigh in on major discussion points. In the experiment phase, it emerges that some team members find this to work wonderfully, while other team members feel put on the spot. Use the check-in date to consider alternatives, including things like rotating formats to meet diverging needs.
- If you oversee multiple teams, it can be tempting to ask them all to use the same agreements, but that won’t work. For leaders, there are obvious benefits to sameness across teams. For instance, it’s typically easier for people higher up in an org to coordinate projects when everyone is using the same project management process. But teams each have their own culture; trying to follow directives that don’t make sense for their dynamics can lead to significant losses of productivity and diminished trust in you. Instead, identify the outcomes you need, reduce the surface area of similarity across teams, and ask them to come up with agreements that will let them meet these goals. If they’re struggling, see if coaching on agreements helps.
- Agreements aren’t magic bullets. Don’t over-focus on them and lose track of other critically important ingredients for success, like whether your teams understand the company strategy, how their work relates to it, and what their priorities are. Beware of bikeshedding with agreements.
While they require intentionality and occasional tweaking, strong agreements support team cohesion, making it easier and more satisfying to work together. They’re worth your active attention.