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 Agile 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.

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.”

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.

 

Building an Agile team character is smilar to solving a puzzle

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 Agile team charter is not 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.”

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.

Keep your Agile team charter near your Kanban board

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 in the process management tool. Alternatively, it can act as a desktop wallpaper (yes, these exist!) 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.

Elements of Your Agile Team Charter

Now that you know how your Agile team charter should behave in order to work its hardest for your team, we can start to explore what it might actually contain to achieve maximum impact. We’ve seen many and varied team charters in our day, but they all contain a mix of the following elements in order to create clarity and consensus around problematic areas of any team’s process.

Background

Add context to where the team finds itself at a given point in time. Include a brief introduction of how the team started and where is it now. Focus on the journey and your mission. This will be helpful to new team members who are just being integrated into the team as well as team members with tenure who already feel invested in the team’s goals.

Example: “We started with 2 team members a year ago and now we’re a tribe of 5 Agile marketing warriors. We conquer with precision, attention to the detail, and a good sense of humor!”

Roles

When building out cross-functional teams, it can be easy to blur the boundaries between which members of the team are responsible for which tasks. If roles and responsibilities are unclear, it’s likely that individuals will lose accountability for granular tasks. This is where making room for roles in the team charter can come in handy.

List the main responsibilities of each team contributor to create visibility around “who owns what” and avoid confusion that could slow the team down.

Example:

Roles:

  • Rob – Head of Marketing (coordinating long term initiatives, budget, and cross-team communication)
  • Natalia – Content Marketing Expert (creates magical stories for our blog and website)
  • Jill – PPC Specialist (master of the paid traffic through AdWords and social media ads)
  • Tomo – SEO Guru (gets Google to notice us and optimizes our domains and web presence)
  • Reena – Communications and Events Manager (handles social media, online and offline events, and external communications)

*note: We self-organize and despite the initiative ownership, we often participate in each of the other domains when necessary.

Objectives

Define your team’s OKRs and list them in a clear, concise way that is accessible to everyone on the team. The team direction can be very easy to lose sight of during fast-paced execution. Including OKRs in the team charter gives the team a North Star to continually row towards.

Our objectives:

  • Organic traffic to the website: Keep organic traffic growing and aim to reach at least 800 organic sessions per month
  • Paid traffic to the website: Keep paid traffic growing and aim to reach at least 200 paid sessions per month
  • Social media traffic to the website: Keep social media traffic growing and aim to reach at least 400 visits per month
  • MQLs: Provide more than 20 marketing qualified leads per month to the sales team
  • Bounce rate: Aim at reaching a bounce rate of less than 30% for all website pages

Values

Team values are at the heart of any Agile team charter. Gather the team and decide which are the top 3 (or so) values you share and want to consistently embody in the ways you work together.

Example:

“This team values productivity over hierarchy!”

“We are continually open to feedback and incorporating improvements!”

Processes

Describe your team’s workflow in a simple and succinct way to work in a more streamlined and consistent way together, and welcome new team members more easily. This is a particularly useful element of the team charter if you are a highly specialized team, masters at a specific aspect of your department’s work item types.

Example:

Website Publication Process:

  1. Add the approved content in WordPress (use text view instead of visual)
  2. Include images and alt texts
  3. Add meta title and meta description
  4. Structure the slug (keep as short as possible and always include keywords)
  5. Save as draft and check everything on Preview Changes
  6. Publish and notify the team

No-nos

The team charter is as much about how we want our team to function and behave as it is about how we definitely do not want it to operate.

Example:

“We do not procrastinate and we share project status often and early.”

“We do not tolerate wishful thinking, we deal with data and use it to make decisions.”

In addition to the main elements, you can add some other points if they feel right. Anything that will be useful to lift team spirit, create consistency, and increase focus, is more than welcome to become an integral part of your team charter. Additional elements you might consider including based on your type of team and work:

Evaluation

Agree on how performance (on the team level as well as the individual level) will be evaluated. Create a clear definition of high performance to help your delivery group navigate the spectrum between what success and failure looks like in this context. This will help your team grow faster and be more focused on the important deliverables.

Budget

Recognizing the limits of your resources and having good understanding of the team’s budget can help you prioritize your initiatives with more factors in mind instead of spending valuable time on ideas that are beyond the scope for the quarter or year.

Stakeholders

Agile is all about being customer-centric, that is why our customers are any proper Agile team’s target customers.

An Agile team charter is an appropriate place to define who your team’s true customers are on an internal as well as an external (end customer) level.  Consider the sales team, CEO, other departments, partners or external influencers. Generate a list within the team and update it when stakeholders change based on the team’s current focus.

Team charters can be huge, made to support all of the elements that matter to the team. Equally, they can also be just a few points long to include only the bare essentials that keep the team on track.

Team charters sometimes live on white boards, illustrated posters on walls, leaflets on our desks or in doc files on our desktops.

What we’ve discovered matters most is not the format or stack of elements, it’s that the team respects and co-creates them from the start.

Real World Examples of Agile Marketing Team Charters

From our experience as sherpas, leading many a marketing team on the journey towards agility, we have helped craft a variety of team charters. Recently, we have begun building a repository of real world examples of effective, yet simple, Agile team charters for marketing teams that have performed well “in the wild”.

Example #1 of a an Agile team charter

As they kicked off Agile ways of working, this team decided to focus almost entirely on making their standups effective. For some added context, this team had attempted to begin running standups before education on the Agile mindset.

“We tried to meet for a few minutes in the morning without a clear action plan. We heard that Agile teams do it! I wouldn’t say it worked, but I wouldn’t say it failed either. It just sort of occurred.”

By structuring their first charter around standups, they managed to focus their morning syncs, get in the habit of attending them and being respectful to every team member who participated. After managing to evolve their standup using the team charter, they evolved the document itself by bringing in new elements related to their team goals.

Example #2 of a an Agile team charter

Another team we recently worked with built a brief, but pertinent team charter focused on their core values. During an offsite, the individual team members collated all of their recommendations for what to points to include in the Agile team charter that would help everyone maintain the desired collaborative attitude and Agile mindset.

Then, they proceeded by voting some recommendations up and some recommendations down. That is how this delivery group of 25+ contributors arrived at a list of seven core rules that would govern their execution and collaboration going forward.

Example of a an Agile team charter for meetings

As an addendum to their Agile team charter, the team discussed above created a separate charter for their team ceremonies.

They described the process of their feedback loops based on a schedule in a clear and concise way. This helps them run their meetings more effectively and more efficiently. By managing expectations for each meeting so everyone can arrive prepared.

Defining the goals of each meeting upfront keeps the discussion on point and focused on what’s important instead of letting them drag on, leading nowhere.

Don’t have a team charter yet?

If your team is operating without a charter, carve out some time this week to get everyone in the same room. Use that time to 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.