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.


You Risk Relationships When You Don’t Communicate Changes Effectively

Think about the last time you learned about a change – one that had implications for your life – right as or right before it occurred. It may have been an increase in an annual payment, the layoff of colleagues or a change in your retirement benefits. Think about how that change felt. Were you angry? Did you feel caught off guard? Did you feel betrayed? Did it weaken your trust in those implementing the change?

If you are responsible for implementing or announcing any kind of change, remember that feeling.

Whether you are responsible for small incremental changes like the modification of a policy or large transformative changes like a restructuring of benefits, remember what it feels like to have a change dropped on you without any warning.

One of the keys to successfully implementing a change is communication. While most of us would agree, we can likely identify times when we haven’t done a good job of communicating an upcoming change to our family, friends, co-workers or constituents. Sometimes the reasons are benign. Implementing change requires managing a lot of moving parts. Figuring out how to share information is just one of those parts. It takes time and coordination to draft messages that will help others understand the need for the change and how it will affect them. If you are pushing hard to meet a deadline, you may not allot the time necessary to develop a coherent communication plan.

Unfortunately, sometimes our reasons are less benign. When we hold information that is going to affect the way others work, manage their budgets or influence their life choices, we are exerting power over them. Remember that feeling when you were caught off guard. When we do not effectively communicate upcoming changes, we are essentially saying, “The effect of this change on you does not matter.” That is often not what we intend and it is definately not a way to strengthen relationships.

If the effect of change on others does matter to you, then make sure that your change communications reflect that. Change communication plans can be relatively simple or incredibly complex depending on the size of your organization and the type of change you are implementing. But, unless your goal is to make those affected by change lose confidence in you, build resistance against the change or even end their relationship with you, developing an effective change communication plan is in your best interest.

Want to learn more about developing effective change communication plans? Contact me.

Life Beyond a List Post

I’ll admit that I get drawn in by list posts (i.e., those popular numbered lists used by marketers and bloggers). My conscientious side feels responsible for knowing the ten items you threw in your trash last night that you should recycle. My productive side fears losing its edge if I fail to employ six tips for making your day better even before you open your eyes. My romantic side wonders if I am single because I was unaware of the top twenty romantic comedies that screw up teens’ beliefs about love (really, someone ought to write that one). And, sadly, my serious side wants to know about the 365 fun things you can do this year even if only to appear fun by knowing how fun can be had.

It’s not that these lists aren’t useful. Many of them contain concisely-phrased common sense. Some of them, if you are lucky, are witty and a delight to read. Others provide information you really need (e.g., 14 of the Best Breakfast Taco Joints in Austin). But, the danger with these lists of handy tips, easy steps and secret keys is that they make it sound so simple. It’s not.

NumbersKnowing is not enough. In order to reap any benefit, you have to put all this must-know advice into practice. With the exception of eating the best breakfast tacos, that’s where it can get hard.

If we want to make reading these lists worth our time, we have to go further. In addition to knowing what, we have to know why and we have to know how. (Note: Rarely do these types of posts provide clues as to how you might act upon all this sage advice.)

For example, try something new is great, but why? And, how can you get started, especially if you are not keen on taking risks or inviting discomfort? There are many factors that influence whether you will take advice and actually do something with it. One, very important factor, is that you understand why trying something new may benefit you. Another is knowing that you are capable of it. If you can’t see how or doubt creeps in, it is unlikely that you will give it a shot.

Unfortunately, those of us who write up these lists often sell ourselves and our readers short. Perhaps we’ve read about shrinking attention span or found that numbered lists generate a higher click-through rate. For whatever reason, we act as if there’s not effort involved. In doing so we contribute to the belief that it should be easy. We make people wonder why it is hard for them.

The truth is our jobs, our families, our lives are complicated. Sharing advice can be useful, but first we have to admit that the practice of life requires a lot of learning – more than can be concisely contained in a numbered list.

Finding Connection in a Customer Service Call

“Hi, my name is Mike, how are you today?”

I had called customer service to cancel a service I had just purchased and to purchase one that I had realized better fit my needs.

I responded, “I am well. How are you?”

Momentary silence.

He cautiously replied, “Well … not great actually. I am a Seahawks fan.”

“Ohhhh,” I said, “I’m sorry. That was a tough ending. A heartbreaker.”

“Yes, I am having a hard time getting over it,” he said, sounding like he wasn’t anywhere near wanting to move on.

I did want to get to the reason I called, but I was also amused that a customer service rep was being so authentic. I hadn’t expected that. Maybe “being real” is a new tactic to “connect” with the customer. Or, maybe the final moments of the Superbowl had set him adrift like disappointment and loss can do.

His response had just surprised me. Talking to customer service doesn’t always feel like a human to human connection.

This did.

What’s funny about this is that I’m not a football fan. I usually end up watching only a few games a year (with family during the holidays or at a parties with friends). I had not watched Superbowl XLIX. Fortunately, I had read enough about the game to know about its dramatic ending.

I wondered how I, not being able to relate as a fan, could empathize with the customer rep’s loss. (I’ll admit that I’ve been re-reading a lot of Brené Brown recently and empathy was on my mind.)

I said, “It is not easy when you’ve put your whole heart on the line and lost.”

He replied with a knowing sigh.

In Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, the authors lift up Martin Buber’s thought-provoking description of the difference between an “I-it” relationship and an “I-thou relationship. Often we treat other living beings as its or things. Whether we are online or on the freeway, we retreat to “I-it” because it is easier. It’s less messy. We don’t have to think about anything other than our own needs. Essentially, it doesn’t require us to draw on much other than our basic instincts. In those rare moments when we allow ourselves to experience “I and thou,” we feel a true connection (even without a mutual love for football).

By the way, after our brief exchange, Mike completed my transaction quickly and wished me luck with my project. I ended the call as a satisfied customer. But more importantly, I ended the call as a human being.

An Art In Which We Should Seek Mastery: Listening

I thought I listened pretty well.

I paid attention. I could recognize distracting thoughts and willfully push them into the background. I learned to maintain eye contact, nod, and when appropriate, give verbal indications that I was intent on understanding what was being said. I was even getting better at repeating back what I had heard and asking relevant questions. I practiced presence. 

The problem was that I underestimated the power of listening. I thought of listening as a skill and to a degree it is. The ability to listen can be developed. There are people who practice it long enough to achieve what is referred to as mastery or expertise. You may have experienced skilled listening if you’ve ever met with a really good coach or counselor. But, listening has so many dimensions (e.g., physiological, cognitive, behavioral, etc.). I’ve discovered that I need to think of it as more than a skill.

Listening is an art.

You are probably thinking, “Right. Nothing new there. It’s another overused phrase — just like ‘the art of writing’ or the ‘art of conversation’.” Well, maybe. But, what do we mean when we describe something as an art?


BLUE PRINT INSTALLATION 8’x8’x4′ Installation

This week, I watched a TED Talks video of an extraordinary artist sharing how her initial fascination with shadows ultimately took her art in directions she had not imagined. Her name is Alexa Meade.

As she describes the evolution of her work, she takes what most of us would see as practicing a skill (i.e., painting shadows) and begins to explore it from different perspectives. At each stage of her journey, she starts with her tools, materials and even a defined mental image of where she’s headed, but then she does something different.

She remains open to what is unfolding.

Here’s where I think the distinction between a skill and an art may lie. She’s not just trying to master a skill, she using her skill to explore what can’t yet be seen.

I loved her description of one of her early works in shadow (i.e., painting on her friend Bernie).

“I had a very specific vision of what this would like…but, something kept on flickering before my eyes. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. And then, when I took that moment to take a step back – magic.”

To experience that magic as listeners, we have to be open to what is unfolding.

That means not anticipating what we are going to hear.

That means not hearing only what we know and believe.

That means being fully committed to the process of discovery.

Before, I was seeking mastery of listening as a skill. What I understand now is that I seek mastery in the art of listening.

Another #%$! Acronym That Might Be Just What You Need

At least once a day, I end up looking up an acronym to find out what it means. Let’s face it. The use of acronyms is less about efficiency and more about excluding all but a small percentage of the population from knowledge you possess. That’s why LOL, which used to mean “laugh out loud” (or if you were a mom trying to be hip, it was “lots of love”) is OVER. It got overused. Too many people knew its meaning and it fell out of fashion. It’s no longer exclusive enough.

I’m not a fan of exclusivity. Also, not a fan of acronyms.

There is one acronym, however (and while I am only promoting the concept it represents), I do want to bring to your attention. Maybe you have seen it or heard it before.

PLN = Personal Learning Network

So what does that mean? Let’s break it down.

Personal means it relates to you.

Learning means acquiring new knowledge.

Network means access through an interconnected system of people and resources.

You acquiring new knowledge through an interconnected system of people and resources.

Personal learning networks are pretty cool things. And, unlike acronyms, they represent access to an expansive and expanding world of knowledge for those who create and leverage them.

My graduate program is hosting an open section of Exploring Innovation in Networked Work and Learning starting today. If you are interested in “models of learning that leverage networked environments,” join in. Personal Learning Networks are one of those models that might be just what you need to lead a learning life.

Bring on the Next Challenge

I was recently standing in a country cemetery with my parents visiting with one of my father’s high school classmates and her son following the death of a long-time neighbor. I had never met either my Dad’s friend or her son though I knew of them. The son thought he might have remembered me. He said, “You were a good athlete in high school. I remember seeing you at the gym.” Both my parents immediately began to laugh. I said, “Umm. No. You are probably thinking of one of my sisters.”

Though I played tennis in junior high and high school, danced with a civic ballet and even began to run in my adult life, completing a couple of half marathons and a few sprint triathlons, no one, including myself, would consider me a competitive athlete. My participation in these activities typically revolved around the social aspects and the cute attire. I’ve never been particularly driven by my performance in comparison with others. I have, however, always welcomed a challenge that pushes me to be healthier and more effective.

For the last seven days, I’ve been participating in the Your Turn Challenge. The challenge was inspired by the Your Turn book by Seth Godin. Seth’s Special Projects Lead Winnie Kao invited a like-minded community to push themselves to write and publish (i.e., “ship”). I learned about the challenge after reading Getting Unstuck (a one week challenge), one of Seth’s daily posts, and clicking on Winnie’s invitation to join her. I joined. I failed to ship on time twice during the week, but I did manage (just under the wire) to publish seven posts in seven days.

It was an inspiring experience. The camaraderie of the community. Reading so many interesting and compelling posts. Digging deep to quell my fears. Realizing once again that, for me, it is not about placing first in my age group, or setting a new personal best (although I suppose you could say that in the category of blogging, this week’s production was my PR), it’s about pushing myself little by little to a new place.

I’m tired, but exhilarated. All I can say is, “Whew!”

Tomorrow, though, I know I will wake up ready. Bring on the next challenge.

Finding Love, Navigating Loss and Championing Kid Heroes: What’s Your Digital Purpose?

I am not a digital native, but I consider myself a digital enthusiast. Having instant access to more information that I could ever process, being able to learn about any topic imaginable and the opportunity to connect with friends and strangers around the world fills me with possibilities. In the end though, if we don’t use digital tools for a purpose then we squash all that possibility. I’ll be the first to admit that I have lost hours to watching laughing baby videos, scrolling through #DowntonAbbey feeds and looking up words and phrases I hear from college students on Urban Dictionary. This time is not completely wasted. The babies make me smile, #DowntonAbbey tweets provide entertainment and the Urban Dictionary definitions keep my face from turning red (at least some of the time). It’s such a powerful tool though. Wielding it requires focus. I’m trying to focus my digital presence and have developed a set of questions to guide me.

What’s your digital purpose? This is a big question. Our digital lives reflect our real lives and thus can have many facets. One of the struggles we face is figuring out how to separate, balance or integrate the personal and professional dimensions of our lives. Whichever stance you choose, it will help in defining your digital purpose. Another helpful question is, “What do you want to be known for?” Get as specific as possible.

Does the content you produce consistently align with your purpose? If a stranger conducts a search on your name, what does your digital identity say about you? If it is not want you want said, develop content that is consistent with who you are, what you care about and the mark you want to make.

How are you connecting with others who share or can advance your purpose? This is where things get exciting. The barriers for networking in the digital age are lower than ever. It must be stated that there’s still much work to be done to ensure people around the world have access to digital technologies. Nevertheless, it is easier than ever to connect with people with whom we have little or no connection, people we admire and people who share our interests. Leverage your network. This becomes much easier when your digital purpose is clear. Now, I am still working on all this for myself, but I have four friends who inspire me because their digital identities reflect a clear purpose (see below). Please share any good examples you can offer, too.

Duana Welch Ph.D. recently launched the book Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do. It’s the first book to take men and women from before they meet until they decide to commit, based on science, and it fits her digital purpose to make relationship science accessible to everyone.

Martha Atkins Ph.D. writes, speaks, and leads conversations around death, dying, life after death, and living life as empowered humans. Check out her website. She calls us “shiny humans.” I love that.

In 2009, Samia and John Joseph founded Superhero Kids to address quality of life issues for children and their families battling cancer and blood disorders at the Children’s Blood and Cancer Center of Central Texas. Samia admits that her familiarity with social media was limited when they started, but she has learned to use it for the purpose of championing kid heroes.

I’m going to keep working until my digital purpose is clear. How about you?

My Thread

About a week ago, I read a blog post by someone I greatly admire – Parker Palmer. Palmer is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His writings often linger with me for days, but his weekly Onbeing column titled, “A Thread to Guide Us” pursued me like my mother does when she wants to know if there have been any developments in my love life – gently, with love, but persistent and unwilling to go away without an answer.

Here’s where it’ll help to know more about Palmer’s blog post. He shared a poem by William Stafford (see below) and posed some questions for reflection.

The Way It Is by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Pretty straight forward, right? Sure. I’ve got a thread, maybe several. Family, friends, humanity, faith, love. These are my constants. They are my way back home. Contemplation done.

Well, not so fast. Family changes. Last week, my brother-in-law’s mother died and then he met his first grandchild days later. Friends grow closer or slip away. Humanity? Hmmm, reading the news makes that a tough one, but maybe. Faith? I’m one of those that never wants to stop questioning. Love? That’s closer. Sing it with me. Love, love, love … all you need is love. I do think of it as a guide. But, is that my thread?

What is one thing that has never changed for me? What guides me? What keeps me on my path?

My parents tell a story about how one of the first words that I could say and spell was EXIT. They explain that I was always on the go and any threshold presented a new adventure. Out the door was always something new to see, experience or with which I could find a connection. That’s my thread – learning. I am never letting go.

The Inviting Question

If you’ve ever engaged in one of those spiraling conversations with a three-year-old child that begins with “Why?,” you know that this powerful one-word question can be exasperating. When we don’t know the answer, we can feel inadequate. When an answer is complex, we may be unwilling to take the time to dig below the surface. When we do try to answer … and answer … and answer, we can feel like a quiz show contestant trying to outwit a very short host before the buzzer.

For seemingly inquisitive toddlers, however, pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene suggests that the question “Why?” may simply indicate that they find something interesting and want to start a conversation. They want more than a pat answer; they want to engage us. “Why?” is their invitation.

As invitations go, “Why?” invites much more than the particulars. It’s not merely who, what, where and how, it’s the driving force. Describing that force is not always easy (especially to a toddler), but it is essential for establishing relevance. “Why?” explores value. Is this person, thing or effort worthy of our time and energy? Whether we are three, thirty-three or seventy-three, “Why?” is one of the most critical questions we can ask.

In the early 1990s, while working for a hospital, I was trained as a member of a continuous process improvement team. I learned a lot from that experience, but one of my clearest memories was the colorful consultant who started each training session by imitating W. Edward Deming. In a slow, low, even-toned voice, he would ask, “Why are we here? Why are we here? Why are we here?” and then pause for us to contemplate. I don’t know if Edward Deming really sounded like that. Honestly, that was my first introduction to Deming as I had recently graduated from college with a degree in art and knew very little about management. But, it left an impression on me. In both work and my personal life, I’ve found “Why?” to be THE QUESTION.

If we are willing to accept the invitation, take the time, dig below the surface and explore that driving force, we can get to the heart of just about everything.

Today, thanks to Winnie Kao, Special Projects Lead for , who invited people to join her for the Your Turn Challenge, I am asking myself:

Why are you doing the Your Turn Challenge?

For me, this challenge offered the right mix of risk, commitment and reward.

Whatever has driven each person to participate in this challenge, we’re doing it together. That means I am in the company of others who think that there is value in this effort. It is giving me the courage to do something I should have already done on my own.

Seven days is long enough to make it matter and short enough not to feel overwhelming.

From past experiences, I know that the act of writing daily produces benefits beyond what you can imagine. However, “shipping” what you write does take it to another level. That is a reward that only I can give myself. I’m sorry to say that I have allowed fear to get in the way of doing this sooner. I’m doing this now to take a risk, grow and learn.

Finally, there’s no room for excuses. I’ve wanted to blog for a long time. Why? Because nothing happens when you keep your thoughts to yourself.