Preventing team problems: a simple tool

People often come into teams with different experiences and expectations. This often leads to conflicts and miscommunication. Use this simple process, an excerpt from Great Work, to head off team troubles.

Team Agreements

One of the first tasks of the team should be to establish a set of written Team Agreements. These help clarify expectations, manage cultural differences, reduce conflicts and provide a way for teams to resolve them.

Here’s a process I like to use.

  1. Explain the purpose of the exercise is to create a set of agreements that will help the team operate well together.
  2. Ask each person on the team to list a ‘pet peeve,’ something that drives them crazy when working on a team. I like this because you learn a lot about the values of each team member and potentially their fears. Alternatively, you can brainstorm common problems the team members have seen teams struggle with.
  3. Group the pet peeves or team challenges if necessary into similar categories.
  4. For each pet peeve or challenge, come up with an agreement for how to avoid it and also to deal with it if it happens.

Common areas that team agreements cover include:

  • How to communicate between meetings. For example, by email, text, or conference calls. Expected turn around time to respond (eg, how often to check emails)
  • How to deal with time. What is considered ‘starting the meeting on time?’ What are the expectations around commitments and deadlines? If you are starting to worry that you can’t meet a deadline, what should you do?
  • How to maintain a fair and balanced workload. What to do when you have too much or too little?
  • How to resolve conflicts. Usually this includes a set of escalating steps. This can vary a lot by culture.
  • How to run team meetings. What roles (eg, facilitator, time keeper, historian) will you have and do they rotate? Are there standing agenda items? (See Check Ins and Outcome Focused Agendas.) If you have team members who speak different languages, you may need an agreement around what language is used so that some team members don’t feel isolated.
  • How to assign responsibilities. Do people get to volunteer? If someone wants to build their skills, can the team find a way to help them do that without undermining the quality of the work?

Sample team agreements

Some team agreements I found useful:

  • Those who show up have the power. (Teams can waste time rehashing decisions if someone was missing from an earlier meeting. This agreement forces team members to show up or if they can’t be present, to send their input along in advance. This implies that meeting agendas are available in advance.)
  • Assume a positive intent, until proven otherwise. (People have a tendency to attribute negative meaning or intention to someone’s actions when it’s not what they would like: ‘He’s trying to get back at me,’ or ‘She doesn’t think I know what I’m doing.’ Instead this agreement asks the team members to assume that people are usually acting in good faith. If you’re unhappy with an action or behavior, start out by assuming it’s a misunderstanding or a result of having different information.
  • Before we make a decision, we will decide how we will decide. (As I discussed in Chapter 6: Balance Rights and Responsibilities, not all decisions should be made by consensus.)

How to use the Team Agreements

Make the Team Agreements a living document. Refer to it often in meetings. For example, you might at the end of the meeting ask the team which agreements they exemplified and which one they most need to work on. When problems come up, refer to the Team Agreements for guidance on how to deal with it. When unforeseen problems occur, create a new team agreement to deal with it.


The best way to launch a new team

This excerpt from Great Work will show you how to clarify the team’s purpose and boundary conditions so they can flourish as soon as they’re launched.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen managers form a team without a clear understanding of what they are asking for. Out of ignorance or laziness, they ask for recommendations, not decisions. And because they weren’t clear at the outset about the criteria their recommendations should meet, the teams spend hours going down rabbit holes and then when they present their best ideas to the manager, the manager says, ‘You can’t do that!’ It’s no wonder employees tend to be suspicious of these teams.

The solution to this is for the manager or group that is chartering the team to spend a significant amount of time beforehand, clarifying what they need and expect. Some managers think that this is disempowering, but it is exactly the opposite. Constraints promote creativity. Clear boundaries promote innovation.

When I facilitated this Team Launch process with managers, I would ask them to set aside four hours. They were always shocked that I would ask for that much time but usually at the end, they would be surprised to see how little they understood about the task they were requesting.

Team Launch Process

Answer these questions in this order:

Why: Why are you forming this team? What’s in it for the organization and for the members themselves?

What: What do you need them to do? What would success look like? Create a set of boundary conditions; if they come up with a solution that fits inside that ‘box,’ that they can decide, not just recommend.

Who: Who needs to be on the team for this to be successful? Don’t forget to think of people outside the organization. If this is a one-off project, it may be wise to hire a facilitator who has a process for completing this work.

When and Where: What are milestones and deadlines when they should communicate with you. Is this during work hours? What is the scope of the work (eg, just your building or the whole division)? Where can they meet?

How: What tools or resources are available to them? Do you have a set of steps or a process that you would like them to follow?

Probably the most important element of this whole process is the boundary conditions. The team will then know what they have the power to decide and what they need to ask for permission to do.

Once you have these answers in writing, call the first team meeting and go over them with the team members. So often, I’ve heard team members say, ‘This was great! We should start all new teams this way.’

Don’t confuse team types

Often problems arise when managers or facilitators apply the practices of one team type to another. If your teams are struggling, this might be the problem. In this excerpt from GREAT WORK, I’ll explain some of the different team types and share a story where getting this right made all the difference.

Choose the right team for the purpose

There are many different types of teams and each team type has certain practices that make it successful. Applying the wrong team type to a situation is a recipe for frustration.

Teams differ in many ways. They have different purposes and characteristics. For example, their purpose may be to:

  • Do regular, repetitive work
  • Solve a problem
  • Design a new product or process
  • Implement a new corporate initiative
  • Share learning
  • Coordinate resources

At the same time they may differ in their characteristics:

  • Duration­: temporary or “permanent”
  • Commitment­: full time or part time
  • Composition­: homogenous or diverse
  • Location: ­co-located or “virtual”
  • Interdependence: tight or loose
  • Task­: mostly physical or mental
  • Authority: ­decide or recommend

Take one look at all these variables and you quickly realize that one way of operating can’t possibly fit all teams. Using the wrong practice on a team causes problems.

Getting it wrong

I remember a governmental agency that made this mistake. A team of graphic designers had been formed to make a recommendation to management about the purchase of new computer equipment. The rest of the organization used PC’s but graphic artists were passionate about the Mac platform. By the time the client called me for help, the team had expended many months in emotional bickering and had gotten nowhere.

We discovered that their facilitator had used a typical total quality problem solving process: write a problem statement, analyze the problem, review possible options, develop a recommendation and so on. But framing this as a problem only fed the emotional fire. This was not a problem solving team; it was a task force. So I came in with a description of the team’s purpose, a picture of the analytical tools we’d need to complete, and a schedule. After five half-day meetings over a couple weeks, the team’s recommendations were complete and accepted by management.

Common Team Types

The archetypes in the list below represent common clusters of purposes and characteristics. For example, work teams are usually full time, have high authority, and are often but not always cross-functional (diverse). Product development teams usually stay together only as long as it takes to design a new product, and do highly creative, mental tasks.

Standing or permanent teams:

  • Self-directed work teams
  • Management teams
  • Communities of practice (learning teams)
  • Functional departments or shifts
  • Representative committees (can be standing or temporary)

Temporary teams:

  • Project teams
  • Task forces
  • Product development teams
  • Problem solving teams
  • Representative committees (can be standing or temporary; eg, a steering committee is often temporary)

If you want to learn what the best practices are of each team type, check out GREAT WORK.

Teams work because we’re human

Why teams work

Many people bemoan the lack of teamwork in their organization. However, that is usually a failure of leadership, not of teams per se. This excerpt from GREAT WORK explains why humans crave teams.

When I was in college, my parents moved to a farm in South Carolina. During my summer break, Dad and my brothers were out clearing the fields. I felt useless, so I asked Dad what I could do. He said, “Why don’t you plant some flowers around the house?” It seemed so trivial and sexist, and worse, I would be left alone to do it. “I want to be out with you, cutting up things with chainsaws!” I blurted out. My father was stunned. It had never occurred to him that I’d want to do heavy work. But for me, it was about being engaged in the important work of our tribe, and being with my tribe.

As humans, we are biologically driven to stay with our people. When many cultures want to severely punish someone they push them out: Ancient Athenians ostracized people from the city for 10 years. Catholics excommunicate, Mormon’s shun and Quakers disown. The Balinese call it kasepekang.

cafd2-great2bwork2bcover-smallTeams work because we are human. With rare exceptions, people like to be around other people. Even introverts need social interaction. Infants can die from ‘failure to thrive’ if they are not held.

In addition to our genetic tendency to be with others, we need teams in organizations because tasks have become specialized. We often need a number of other people to complete a task.

So we create organizations and subgroups in those organizations because we are biologically attracted to working with others and because we invent work that requires multiple skills.

When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it’s you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.

Steven Spielberg, film producer

That’s not at all to say that most teams work well. In this chapter I want to share some simple but powerful techniques to make working in a team a joy.

Size matters

British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar was trying to figure out what determined group size in different primates. His research indicated that it was tied to the size of the neocortex. As group size grows, the relationships between those individuals go up exponentially. You have to remember who is friends with whom, who is related to whom. So he used the factor from close to 40 primates and applied it to the human brain. We are wired to be able to maintain close relationships with 148 people, plus or minus. Dunbar’s Number, as it’s called, is usually rounded up to 150. This number also seemed to work for more primitive societies including Neolithic farming villages, as well as the size of Roman army companies. More recently, it is also close to the number 200 at which Hutterite settlements split apart.

Dunbar’s Number should influence organizational structure if you want people to feel an affinity to others in the organization. Companies like Gore (which gained public recognition with Goretex fabric) and ABB Asea Brown Boveri, a global engineering firm, have used Dunbar’s Number to decide when to break off a division or subsidiary.

I think of AES as a conglomeration of small communities. And I don’t think there’s any company in the world that’s so big that you can’t organize this way. Even a plant with 400 people can be broken down into smaller groups. It’s a small enough community that there is the ability to have an accountability structure within it, you know,
a social structure as opposed to a “military” structure.

—Dennis Bakke, founder of AES[i]

Thinking about your organization from a tribal perspective can inform your decisions about group size. According to Dunbar, tribes often included 500-2500 people, but they were broken down into cultural groups of 100-200 (Dunbar’s Number) and that was broken down into bands of 30-50 people. And bands can be broken down into multi-generational family groups, usually 6-12 people.

So teams can usually self-manage if they are under a dozen people. Beyond that you need structured roles to coordinate with larger ‘bands.’ (This does not imply the need for a manager, someone hierarchically ‘superior’; it just implies a need for a representative or link-pin to other interdependent teams.)

Group rewards (see more on this in Chapter 11: People don’t work for money) should be aligned to Dunbar’s Number so the individuals have what human resources field calls a ‘clear line of sight’ between their actions and the rewards.

You can order GREAT WORK in print or as three separate e-books.

[i] Graduate School of Business (February 1997) Human Resources at AES: The case of the missing department. Stanford University. Retrieved from

more Great Work: shoes that grow with kids

On a mission to Kenya, Kenton Lee noticed kids were often wearing shoes that were ill-fitting, not protecting them from soil-born disease. You may take it for granted when your kids outgrow their shoes that you can just go buy new ones. But that’s not so easy to afford in parts of the developing world. So Lee invented a durable shoe that can grow along with the children’s feet.

When did housing become fashion?

So often do I hear from neighbors and realtors, “the house needs updating.” They are usually referring to light fixtures, counters, cabinets, etc. Things that are nailed down. Not paint colors and a throw rug.

Image: Stuart Miles
Image: Stuart Miles

The fashion industry has tried to convince people that last year’s colors or skirt lengths or whatever are passé; you’ll be an embarrassment to your family and friends if you don’t buy a new wardrobe. That behavior has significant environmental consequences. As this article by Environmental Leader points out, cheap prices and marketing manipulation are helping to strip our planet. Cotton, for example, uses almost 3 percent of the world’s water and according to the Organic Consumers Association, a single T-shirt requires about 1/3 of a pound of agricultural chemicals to produce. Close to twenty percent of industrial pollution comes from dyeing textiles. And the human misery associated with some of the factories is well understood. So changing what you wear every year has its downside.

But applying this same fashionista attitude to building materials only magnifies the impacts. Sure, if you have a 1970’s orange Formica counters, most of us could understand the desire to remodel. But do we really need new lighting, new sinks, new cabinets just because someone has determined they’re currently in the no-man’s land between edgy and classic?

Maybe instead, you can get creative with a can of low-VOC paint. You can paint the walls, cabinets and even light fixtures; I salvaged a light and painted it to look like copper. Buy an awesome painting from a local artist. Buy good, timeless materials, take good care of them, and resist the marketing hype. You’ll save money and help the planet.