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Playing a board game without all participants having a consistent understanding of the rules is a frustrating, time-wasting experience.

The same is true when a team starts to work together for the first time. Whether it is done proactively when the team assembles or is done as a reaction to unhealthy conflicts, having a basic set of working agreements can help to accelerate a team’s transition out of the storming and norming phases of development.

While we often think of working agreements as covering team member interactions such as how to deal with conflict, the communication methods to be used for different situations or logistics for regular meetings, a good set of ground rules will also cover the teams way of delivering value. For example, the Definition of Ready or a Definition of Done are two examples of delivery working agreements.

But how do ground rules get defined?

In my past experience, I’ve encountered four scenarios:

  • The team leader defines the rules. In such cases, the team might be permitted to provide feedback, but the leader has the final say.
  • The team defines the rules with support from the leader. In these situations, the leader might act as an advisory facilitator, helping the team through the process but also ensuring that the rules remain within organization policy and standard guardrails.
  • The team defines the rules by themselves. The team leader might observe the process but won’t inject any of their knowledge into the proceedings.
  • The team has no ground rules. This doesn’t mean that anything goes, but rather the rules are never openly discussed and explicitly defined.

Most of the teams I’ve witnessed fall into one of the first two scenarios. Highly mature, self-managing teams will transition from the second to the third scenario. I’ve rarely seen the fourth scenario, and mostly that was with teams who had novice leaders.

I ran a one-week poll in PMI’s LinkedIn Project, Program and Portfolio Management discussion group as well as the community . Unlike some of my recent polls, this topic drew a large number of responses: 236. 53% of the votes were cast for the leader as a facilitator, 22% for the team defining rules on their own, 16% of respondents indicated that no rules were explicitly defined and the remaining 9% were the team leader defining the rules.

It is encouraging that three-quarters of the responses indicated some degree of self-organization and team autonomy, but that still leaves a quarter of teams either having rules imposed which might reduce their motivation or having no rules at all which increases the likelihood and duration of interpersonal conflicts.

“Rules and responsibilities: these are the ties that bind us.” – Neil Gaiman

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on  and on  as well as a number of other online book stores).

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