Building your First Agile Team Charter

When groups of people first begin to work together on a joint initiative, a series of magical and mysterious things happen as they start figuring out how to “row in the same direction.” 

Different personalities begin to negotiate how they will share responsibilities, team members begin to learn about each other’s quirks, people’s skillsets begin to emerge, and the first arguments around how tasks get done begin to rock the boat.

Whatever the project and team, there will almost always be friction when people come together to work towards a common goal for the first time.

The difference between a productive and happy team and a chaotic and ineffective one is how these teams manage to move beyond moments of friction. 

In other words, how they actually become high-performing. 

One way Agile teams build shared understanding, accountability and harmony into their DNA is by building a team charter. 

If you’re not familiar with that exact phrase, think of it as a manifesto of sorts.

Team charters are a great way to reduce confusion among team members. They also cut down on the need for rework and lower risk over the course of a project. Finally, they keep members accountable to one another around common goals. 

It’s the team’s North Star as they collaborate.

Unwritten Team Rules Are Not Enough

It’s likely that most teams already have a set of unwritten rules that govern how they function. However, it’s nearly impossible for unwritten rules to effectively act as a team’s “North Star.” 

This is because unwritten rules: 

  • have a tendency to get ignored, forgotten, or misconstrued
  • are understood differently by various team members
  • are invisible to new members of the team, which makes it difficult for them to onboard easily
  • cannot be improved upon incrementally

Building team charters emerged as a means to remove miscommunications around the team’s values and the behaviors they deliver.

The Perfect Team Charter 

What does the optimal team charter look like? When we kick off new Agile marketing teams, we emphasize that team charters work best when they are: 

  1. Timely:

    The first team charter should be put together as close to the team’s inception as possible. 

  2. Succinct:

    This document should contain up to a maximum of 10 team rules that the members can know well. If the team charters ends up becoming a list of 100 rules, many will be neglected. Keep it short, sweet, and top of mind.

  3. Team-created:

    As all team members will be accountable for following the rules of the charter, it should reflect the beliefs of this group of people, not their managers. As new members join the team, the charter can evolve. 

  4. Actionable yet abstract:

    Rules in the charter should be phrased in such a way that team members can definitively say whether they are getting done or not. However, they can also reflect abstract practices and feelings, such as pride and offering support.

  5. Dynamic yet dependable:

    This is a living document. Allow the team charter to change based on new information that comes into the team. But, make sure it’s not changing as often as every day or every week; this level of frequency will cause confusion. 

  6. Realistic:

    Keep the team rules outlined in the charter reasonable based on what the team can do now, not what the team wishes they might be able to do in ideal circumstances.

  7. Accessible:

    Word documents or PDF files on your computer don’t make good team charter formats. Put a sheet of paper on the wall of the space you share with your team members, if you’re colocated. If not, change everyone’s computer backgrounds to the charter.  

  8. Agreed upon:

    It’s essential that the whole team believes in the contents of the charter. During its creation, give everyone on the team ample time and space to contribute; don’t steamroll quiet team members.

The charter can turn into a real resource made for the team and by the team. For that to happen, we advise the teams we work with to follow each of these criteria. So, let’s explore how each of these comes into play as we build our first Agile team charters. 

Timely 

Even though the charter might develop and evolve over time, new teams have a better chance at success if they start off with one, rather than without one. 

Once a group of people begin working on a common project, agreeing on a set of ground rules can move them faster through the various stages of team development towards becoming a high performing team.

stages-team-development

Image from: https://margarethillary.com/team-work/

 

When kicking off a new team, make sure to include an exercise during which the team can build a charter (or some version of team policies). 

Putting in the time early on will help them define expectations and set them up for success further down the line.

Succinct 

If you have a scroll of one hundred different rules for the way your team functions, you’ve gone overboard with the team charter. 

Aim to include up to ten maxims to which the team members all subscribe. Putting a limit on the number of rules you’d like to have as a team forces members to propose only what they believe is vital to the team’s success and not just “nice-to-have.” 

agile-team-charter

You will need to keep the team charter visible and accessible. Having the rules posted on a sheet of paper is the easiest way to keep your ten or so team mottos top of mind.

Team-created

The team charter works best when it’s by the team, for the team. 

A team’s manager can facilitate the building of the first charter, as a source of encouragement and support. However, his/her role is not to dictate the contents of the charter in any way. 

When the team participates in the creation of their charter, they are 10x more likely to follow it. Further, they are more likely to consistently put in the effort to enforce them. 

team-charter

As the charter is unique to every team, it’s indispensable that current (and new) team members are the ones putting it together.

Actionable yet abstract

The team charter is unlike a visual workflow because it highlights behaviors that should be consistent throughout the work process. 

It might include behaviors that the team aspires to, such as “asking for feedback often” or “being positive”. Aim to make your charter as actionable as possible. 

A highly actionable charter may include “buddy up on tasks at least twice a month” or “share learnings with the team once a month.” 

However, it may also include more abstract mantras that will serve the team, like “be open-minded” or “be positive.” 

accountability-values

Image from https://tcagley.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/agile-project-charter/

Dynamic yet dependable

The team charter is a living document. It should reflect changing priorities and goals within the team. 

As new information comes into the team, new members get added or requirements of the project shift, elements of the charter may also change. 

Just make sure you are not changing the team charter every day. Changes to the charter should not be haphazard and should include input from every member of the team. 

Realistic 

The charter will evolve over the course of a team’s journey. But, it should always aim to reflect what is within the realm of the possible. 

Take into account project timelines, number of team members and distribution of skills, whether the team members are remote and other defining factors. 

Unrealistic team charters often get ignored because it becomes impossible to enforce them. 

Accessible

Keeping the team charter as a file on your computer means it’s almost always invisible. It’s preferable for it to live in a place that the team frequents, like a common room or near your Kanban board

accessible-team-charter

Image from GDS flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gdsteam/14060957152

That way, the team has access to it whenever they are working. 

Further, people who are not part of that team may also see the team’s manifesto. This allows them to better understand the values of the team. It also helps them figure out how they might collaborate more effectively with the group. 

If the team is distributed, the team charter can be accessible by getting a special place as part of their process management tool. Alternatively, it can act as a desktop wallpaper (yes, we’ve seen these!) or simply be kept in each individual’s work area as a post-it. Keeping the elements of the charter top of mind for team members is essential.

Agreed upon 

This tool for building shared understanding, increased accountability, and higher morale within a team only works if the team agrees with its contents. 

One of the reasons we encourage teams to build their own charters, without direct influence from leaders, is to support a greater agency around how things get done. 

It’s crucial that the team does not have its values thrust upon it. Instead, the teams should have an opportunity to build an image of how it wants to function on a daily basis.

Don’t have a team charter yet?

If your team is currently operating without a charter, carve out some time this week or next to get everyone in the same room and ideate around what you might want to include. 

Start with five team policies and post them on the wall. 

If you’re doing retrospectives on an ad hoc basis or at the end of every sprint, take those opportunities to revisit the team charter and add or take away policies. 

Remember, it’s a living document, so you should take care of it!

If you’ve already got a team charter in place, share some of your team rules in the comments.

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