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Get Your Project Team Back on Track – Use a Team Charter

As a corporate trainer and leadership coach, I often consult with team leaders and executives who are at their wit’s end

– completely frustrated with team members who seem to make their own rules, don’t deliver as promised, misunderstand or misinterpret tasks/requests, complain about unclear priorities, etc. If that’s you, the good news is that YOU’RE NOT ALONE!

Related Article: Writing Better Project Charters

Particularly in the early stages of team development (and unfortunately often during later stages as well), team leaders struggle with dysfunctional teams who simply aren’t “on the same page”. My consulting experience has proved time and time again that the factors contributing to this dysfunction are definitely multifactorial (wrong skills sets on the team, poor leadership or lacking executive support, broken processes, confusing policy decisions, constant change, or poor organizational communications are just a few of the common culprits). Because the causes of dysfunction are often varied, there is rarely one silver bullet solution; however, I have found one secret that seems to ameliorate many of these issues and has worked successfully time and time again….the Team Charter. If your team doesn’t have one, it’s like a ship sailing without a rudder and don’t be surprised if you soon find yourself off course or as I often say…feeling like you’re combing spaghetti!

What is a team charter?

A team charter is a document that a team leader can use as an instrument to facilitate discussion/consensus building on the fundamentals that really define the team, its goals and how the team will function to achieve them best. Typical team charter elements can include the following:

  • Team Name – How does the team refer to itself?
  • Team Purpose – What is the team’s reason for existence?
  • Strategic Alignment – How does the team’s work support/relate to the larger organization’s goals?
  • Team’s Customers – Who are the team’s customers (internal and external)?
  • Team Objectives/Goals and Priorities – What are the team’s primary objectives and how are they prioritized?
  • Team Leader and Sponsor – Who is the team leader and who is the champion?
  • Key Stakeholders – Who are the key stakeholders that have an interest in the team’s work?
  • Key Deliverables – What are the team’s key deliverables or tangible work products?
  • Team Member Roles and Responsibilities – Who are the team members and what are their roles and responsibilities?
  • Team Member Time Commitments – What are the specific time commitment expectations for all team members?
  • Team Communication Plan – What are the communication rules for the team? How often will we communicate and what forms will communication take?
  • In/Out of Scope Elements – What tasks/functions are in scope for our team and which ones are out of scope?
  • Assumptions – What assumptions are we making about our team and how it operates? Are there any constraints or barriers that we should note?
  • Success Measurements – How will we measure the team’s success?
  • Risks – What risks should the team consider? How can we mitigate those risks?
  • Team Ground Rules – What ground rules should we adopt about how we interact with one another, conduct meetings, etc.?
  • Signatures – Can we all commit to this?

When I share this best practice during my training classes, participants sometimes respond by saying that it sounds great, but they don’t really have time to cover all this with their team. My typical response is that if you want your team to be successful, you can’t afford not to do it. It’s one of those pay me now, pay me later situations. If you review the list and think about previous team failures you’ve experienced (whether you were the leader or a team member), I’d bet that at least 75% of the failures can be directly or indirectly attributed to lack of clarity or conflict about one of these items. Actually, this process is terribly common if you consider partnering situations with external entities. Any time a group works with a vendor, there is a contract that clearly spells out all terms and conditions and both parties are expected to sign it. You wouldn’t commit to any work with an outside entity without a signed contract so why do we engage internally all the time without having the same critical discussions? We shouldn’t.

How to Develop a Team Charter

In an ideal world, a new team leader would kick off the team by conducting a “team charter development session” – not too different from the kickoff meeting that a project manager would have at the beginning of a new project. Again, the point is that it’s so important to have a meeting of the minds to ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of understanding the team, its purpose, their role, etc. Since the team charter is broad and covers so many different topics, the reality is that it can take several meetings to work through all the elements. However, don’t think of this as something that you have to do in addition to normal managerial work. Instead, think of it as a guide helping you make sure that you’re covering all the key elements that could potentially derail the team if they’re left unclear. The sample listing above provides the typical elements that you’d want to cover, but it by no means is hard and fast. Feel free to edit the list to address the issues of most importance for your team. However, I would strongly advise against removing too many of the elements. I’m reminded of a quote that hung on my dentist’s wall while I got my cleanings. It read “You don’t have to floss all your teeth – just the ones you want to keep!” Similarly, you don’t have to discuss every element, just the ones where you want to ensure you have clarity and group consensus.

Please remember that when (I won’t even say “if”) you have conflict during these team charter discussions, that’s a good thing! These are precisely the conflicts that you want to uncover and work through at the outset so that you can take action sooner rather than later. For example, if you find that your time commitment expectation from “part time” team members is 20 hours/week but theirs is whenever they have free time, you want to discuss this early. If you find that part of the team thought that international and marketing issues were out of scope for your team, but others thought they were in scope, again, you want to discuss it. The team charter is so powerful because it’s like a crystal ball showing you where your team’s land mines are months or years in advance so that you have an opportunity to address and correct them early on.

Ideally, you’d conduct the session as a 2-3 day team workshop in an offsite location to encourage active participation and candor, but it can also be done through multiple shorter meetings, via conference call, or even over email if you have absolutely no other options. Even with a 2 or 3-day session, you will likely need to assign members of your team to follow up on issues and/or work out details outside the session. Many teams that I work with will have a multi-day session initially, then assign action items to be completed after the session (oftentimes working through the details), and finally sign the document weeks later once the details have all been finalized.

Why do we need signatures?

Would you enter into a lease agreement or business partnership without a signature? Of course not! Getting signatures is such a powerful part of the process. First, it creates an entirely different level of buy in. The reality is that when people sign something, they simply take it more seriously. Also, it changes the dynamic of the team session itself when participants know that they will be expected to sign the document ultimately. For example, they’re much more likely to speak up/push back when the team leader describes the target cycle time of 20 minutes for customer callbacks if they feel that expectation is unreasonable, or the current process can’t support it. I’ve had a few clients who shared experiences with me where one person refused to sign it, and they felt that was VERY telling. Like a flashing red light, it immediately showed them that they had a problem on their hands, and they were so glad it had been revealed early in the process.

The team charter should be a dynamic document evolving over time as there are changes in team composition, processes, overall organization design, or other factors impacting the team. In my experience, I’ve loved having a team charter to share with new team members joining my team because it not only projects an image of stability and structure but also provides an opportunity for me to solicit their input and let them begin to feel part of the team. What was agreed to by the former team won’t be shoved down the throats of new team members. Instead, we will come together to discuss any areas that may need to be changed to incorporate feedback from our newly defined team. Very often when new people join a team, factions or cliques develop – the “old team” and the “new team”. The team charter can be a great tool to help avoid that phenomenon and build a true sense of camaraderie.

Building a strong team is not easy. In fact, if it’s done correctly, it’s a lot of work! But don’t make the mistake that so many managers and team leaders make of thinking that their natural charisma should bring the team together, and they will work together like a well-oiled machine by osmosis. The team charter can be your magic wand. It won’t do the work for you, but it will guide you through the process.

Register today! Dana will be speaking at Project Summit *Business Analyst World Boston on October 25, 2016 and at Project Summit*Business Analyst World NYC on December 5, 2016.

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