Equipped for Success: Team Contracts

Would you characterize yourself as a good team member? What about an effectual team leader? How do you know?

In the workplace teams get formed with such frequency that we may feel fairly well-versed in teamwork and assume that our teams are effective. We rarely set aside time to stop and question these assumptions.

Take a few minutes now and think about your last team and consider these questions.

  • Did the team have a shared understanding of its purpose and goals?
  • Were methods of communicating and sharing information agreed upon?
  • Were responsibilities delineated or were members unclear on who was doing what?
  • Did individual motivations help or hinder the team’s work?
  • Did members feel like they have a meaningful role to play?
  • If conditions changed, did the team address how the new conditions would affect their work?
  • Could concerns be raised? Were conflicts handled productively?
  • Were there opportunities to evaluate the team’s progress?
  • How did the team incorporate what was learned along the way?

The answers to these questions will provide insight into your team’s effectiveness. If answering them is unsettling, you may want to rethink the way your team operates.

One tool that I have found contributes to a team’s success is a team contract. Now, I’ll be honest. The first time I used one I thought it seemed like an unnecessary step. We were all smart, committed, and capable professionals. Why would we need to put in this extra effort to spell out our purpose, document roles and responsibilities, and determine how we would work together? After using team contracts a few times though, I discovered that they are useful particularly because we are all were smart, committed, capable professionals – who have very different ideas and preferences about how to get things done.

You can find templates for team contracts online and that may be a good place to start. But, I recommend customizing one to suit your specific needs. I’ve outlined some general components to consider below.

Define team and individual goals. You want to go into a team project with a clear understanding of what the team needs to accomplish. Don’t assume everyone knows what the goal is. Take a few minutes to clearly define the purpose of your work together. Having an unclear goal, or even worse, no goal, is the quickest way to nowhere! Additionally, it is helpful to understand what individual team members want out of a project. The degree to which team members will share their true objectives depends on the level of trust that exists. Ideally, team members will feel comfortable revealing what they hope to get out of the experience. The ultimate outcome is for both the team and team members to complete the project having achieved their goals.

Identify roles and responsibilities. When you have talented, versatile team members, it is likely that each member could take on multiple roles. Delegating the work and assigning specific roles and responsibilities empowers individuals by giving them pieces of the project. If you are not clear about who is going to do what, you undermine your efficiency as well as risk having teammates step on one another’s toes. You can always trade roles or responsibilities at future points in the project if team members want to gain additional experience or you learn that members’ talents would be better applied in another role.

Clarify how you will work together. We all have different work and communication styles. It is important to agree upon processes for working and communicating. It’s also helpful to understand one another’s preferences. I like to include a section in the contract where team members can state what others need to know about working with them. Maybe one team member prefers to think things out through writing while another team member likes to talk through ideas. Knowing preferences in advance may help explain tensions as they arise or enable you to avoid them.

Build in opportunities to renegotiate. Establish a framework for taking action should parts of the contract need to be revisited. Set this up when the team forms. Decide at which points during a project you want to evaluate the terms of the contract. Depending on the timeframe of the project you may want to renegotiate at the mid-point or at several points during longer projects. Here are some examples of the types of questions you could ask to unearth team conflict or to re-engage team members in both team and individual objectives.

In what ways is this contract serving us well?
Are there parts of the contract that we want to renegotiate?
Are there roles or responsibilities that we want to redistribute?

Again, the degree to which team members are willing to share will depend of the level of trust you have established.

These components will get you started on a team contract. For contracts to be useful, however, all team members should contribute to their development and sign off on the final version. Then your team will be better equipped for success.

Closing notes: I invite you to contact me for contract samples, to learn more about using team contracts to increase the effectiveness of your teams or other ways in which I might help you develop your organization’s strategic capacity through learning.



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