Transform your team's behaviour with a working agreement or culture canvas

by Kirsten Eriksen on 01/05/2020 11:00

Kirstie blog post 2.1

This article is republished from my original Transform your team's behaviour with a working agreement or culture​ post in LinkedIn.

Side note: I wrote this article just before New Zealand entered lockdown. In the weeks that have followed, I've been keeping in touch with the person whose situation I describe, and working remotely has, if anything, intensified the issues they are experiencing. I was going to wait to publish this till we were back in our offices again, but from what I've observed now more than ever, we need the structure the activities below describe. 

The other day I was having a conversation with someone about issues they were struggling with in their team. As the conversation progressed, it sounded to me like they were dealing with issues of culture. It wasn't so much what they were doing but how they were doing it, how they interacted with each other and whether it was aligned with their "purpose".

I've always agreed with the adage: "culture is the behaviours you reward and punish". If people experience positive outcomes for a behaviour, it encourages it to continue. When people experience negative outcomes, they tend to avoid that behaviour in the future (as a side note, in my opinion, if you behave in a particular way and don't get any negative outcome, that counts as a positive outcome encouraging more of that behaviour, especially when the behaviour in question is sub optimal). 

Issues they described

  • People within the team were doing things because they were the things that got seen, and while not rewarded specifically, this behaviour didn't have any negative outcomes. As a result, the work that needed to get done but wasn't "seen" was falling to other team members.
  • People were saying that they were able to do things that they couldn't, whether due to capability or because they were overloaded. This resulted in mistakes and work simply not getting done until others stepped in to clear up the situation.
  • In sessions where new work was discussed, there was a pattern where certain team members would consistently jump in and claim work without allowing others to have opportunity.
  • People within the team were undertaking work that didn't support their "why", their purpose for being, which was creating an expectation outside of the team about what work was done and whether it would be continued in the future.
  • People within the team were encroaching on other team members explicit areas of responsibility, creating frustration, rework and expectations outside the team, that the team couldn't continue to support.

Canvases can help

The team has a recent new manager and a few new team members. This, coupled with the issues they were experiencing, prompted me to suggest that the team have open conversations and prepare an explicit agreement about how they will work together.

One way in which to do this is to work through a working agreement or culture canvas. Generally, these start with explicitly defining the "why" or purpose of the team and then focus on various factors such as values, roles and responsibilities, how the team will try new things, and what behaviours will be encouraged and  what behaviours will be called out and discouraged.

There are many of these canvases online. One of my favourites for "normal" (non-agile)  teams is, whereas for agile teams the one works really well.  

Some advice when using canvases

  • Have an independent facilitator to run the session. This is really important, as personal biases and agendas will interfere with the team's ability to reach agreement. You’re looking for real agreement here, not lip service.
  • When selecting a facilitator, choose someone who is familiar with the canvas method and is competent at running sessions like this. As a suggestion, an agile coach, scrum master or consultant should be familiar with both canvases and the concepts involved in facilitating this kind of session.
  • The whole team should be involved as equal peers. Roles and hierarchy should be laid aside where possible, with everyone having equal voice in the discussion (another reason why an external facilitator is important, you can't facilitate and participate!).
  • Have a think about the "problems" being experienced within the team. If the canvas you have selected doesn't address any of these issues, change it. There's no rulebook for what you need to include, and the elements of any canvas are suggestions rather than set in stone.
  • Set aside adequate time for this activity. It may need multiple sessions. I've had teams get through this in a couple of hours and others that took much more time. This is something that will form the basis for your team culture, it is important and worth the time investment. Every team is different!
  • Consider the impact the culture of your organisation has on your team. Its all very well for a team to agree that they’ll be honest and transparent with each other, yet if the wider organisation doesn't support the behaviour you're trying to encourage, it is less likely to be successful. Culture bubbles do occur; however, they usually only survive if not in direct contradiction with the organisational culture.
  • Live the working agreement or canvas every day, nothing will change if the canvas is then simply put on the shelf. Leaders and team members must model the expected behaviour every time, and the full group will ultimately begin to follow the new norms.
  • Don’t expect this activity to be a silver bullet. People take time to change and they must want to change (see my post on change). If you find things aren't changing, there may be multiple factors involved. Maybe you haven’t got the right things identified, or perhaps you don't have real agreement, or there may be something external impacting the team.

When you undertake an activity like this, and it works, the results are amazing and awesome. I've seen teams completely transform from the inside, where the team members are happier, more productive and more successful. Everybody wins in this situation.

If you'd like to have a chat about canvases, or anything else I've raised in the article, please do get in touch. 

Kirsten Eriksen is a Senior Consultant specialising in business analysis and Agile coaching, based in Equinox IT’s Wellington, New Zealand office.


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