What are Ground Rules?

Ground rules are clear agreements on how team members will treat each other and behave as part of the team. They help guide the behavior of team members to a level that the group finds acceptable. Ground rules can cover anything from how team meetings will be run to how the team will handle conflict and decision-making.

Why Have Them?

Without team ground rules, current behavior and habits become the de-facto ground rules of what is acceptable. This can be a problem if these habits are not aligned to project or organizational success or are disrespectful.

Creating team norms and ground rules set some base behavior and communication expectations. It decreases the risk of confusion because people know what is expected and do not have to second-guess how to act. This can lead to improved performance through clear expectations and fewer misunderstandings.

1.12.1 Communicate Principles with Team and External Stakeholders

Communicate the organizational principles around ground rules with the team and external stakeholders.

(Jointly define and agree to the team ground rules, for both internal and external stakeholders)

How Do We Create Them?

Ground rules should be created collectively when the project starts. The project manager or an interested team member should lead the team in brainstorming what ground-rules they wish to establish. One technique for sparking ideas is to ask team members to think about the best teams they have ever worked on. What made it special? Why did it work so well? Let’s try and recreate that magic here.

If getting started is difficult, or not enough suggestions are forthcoming, consider referring to lists of common team ground rules such as this one. Once ideas have been suggested, the team must negotiate which items there is a strong consensus for. If some people are in favor, but others are not, hold it as a candidate for now. A small list with a universal agreement is more powerful than a list that contains concepts some members are not in full support of.

The ground rules should be displayed in prominent places such as team rooms and project websites. This is so that we are frequently reminded of them and can easily refer to them if we have to remind someone else about them.

Also, consider how the team will interact with stakeholders outside of the project team. When will we communicate? How will we collaborate? Who will escalate issues? Teams often have dependencies with other projects and groups. Managing these expectations and having appropriate communication protocols, shared calendars etc., is critical for success. So the team charter should address both internal and external communication standards. 

Ground rules should be continually evaluated and updated as needed throughout the project. If you have inherited a team that does not have ground rules (or you forgot to define them when starting your project), it is never too late to start. Conducting a short workshop to collectively define team norms and ground rules is a great way to realign a project.

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When first creating ground rules with a team, resist the temptation to get bogged down creating detailed or complex ground rules. Remind people that they will be reviewed and updated in the future as needed. Often “less-is-more” from for simplicity and ease of recall.

Team Charters

In addition to posting in a high visibility location, team norms and ground rules are often documented in a Team Charter. This document captures and shares the values, agreements and practices the team defined that describe how they intend to work together. 

Some typical sections and the types of topics addressed in a team charter include:

  • Shared values – E.G., Respect everyone’s opinion, listen to all perspectives, speak up when we violate our agreements
  • Shared norms – No cellphone use during client demos and meetings, core overlap hours  10:00 am – 3:00 pm
  • How and when we meet – Daily standups will be at 9:30 am in the team room
  • Communication forms – Use Slack and Teams for shared questions and announcements
  • How we make decisions – All decisions that impact the team will be made collectively. We will use Fist of Five majority voting. Decisions impacting stakeholders outside of the project may be escalated to Pam, the program manager.
  • How we handle conflict – Pistols at dawn (or see 1.1 Manage Conflict for ideas)
  • How we inspect, adapt and improve – We will review the Team Ground rules at a minimum every quarter, but anyone can request a review at a retrospective.
  • How we will handle feedback – We value constructive feedback. – We will avoid being defensive and give/listen to feedback constructively.
  • How we will celebrate – We will recognize and celebrate individual and team accomplishments.

1.12.2 Establish an Environment that Fosters Adherence

Establish an environment that fosters adherence to the ground rules.

(Model the desired behavior and hold people accountable)

Model the Desired Behavior

How we behave as the project manager or team lead plays a vital role in setting (or eroding) adherence to the ground rules.  We may not be aware, but as Scrum Master / project manager / team lead we are watched by the team. What we do (and do not do) is noticed and used (maybe subconsciously) to validate other team members’ decisions and actions.

In section 1.2 Lead a Team, we saw that an excellent leader’s most frequently admired characteristic is honesty. If we encourage the team to define ground rules and then break or bend them, nobody else will respect them either. So we have to be sure we honor them and refer back to them when necessary.

PMI has a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct which we also need to understand and follow. All PMI members and non-members applying for a PMI certification, such as the PMP, must agree to comply with the code of conduct. PMI also has an Ethics in Project Management Toolkit that contains helpful resources such as a project manager self-assessment and team self-assessment. 

Remind

Remind People of the Ground Rules

Refer back to the ground rules to remind people of their existence and relevance. This can be in the form of a potential violation, such as “I was going to book the new workshop series, but remembered we agreed to discuss timings as a group.” Or, as a confirmation of a ground rule, “As per our ground rules, I posted the demo schedule to the team site.”

Obviously, you would not refer back to the ground rules all the time like this. However, it could be a helpful, gentle reminder if the team members seem to forget or ignore them.

Safety

Team Ground Rules and Psychological Safety

Collectively creating ground rules helps the team establish some basic psychological safety. Since they are jointly defined, they help people feel like they belong to a common team which is part of 1) Inclusion Safety.

Stages of psychological safety

The subsequent steps of 2) Learner Safety (feeling safe to ask questions), 3) Contributor Safety (feeling safe to share your work and receive feedback), and 4) Challenger Safety (safety to question the status quo) all build on having ground rules. Spending a couple of hours defining team norms will not instantly create psychological safety, but it is a helpful first step.  

1.12.3 Manage and Rectify Ground Rule Violations

(If ground-rule violations occur, resolve them appropriately)

Call Out Ground Rule Violations

It would be wasteful and hypocritical to go to the trouble of creating team ground rules only to ignore them when we see them being violated. When we witness a breach, we should call it out. There is probably no need to get pedantic or overly harsh. Most ground-rule violations tend to be in the spur of the moment. Such as during a heated discussion talking over a quieter team member and not allowing them to contribute.

So, diplomatically, model the desired behavior and call out the violation. For example, “Joe, I noticed you were angry at Vikas when he reported the nozzle test failed. Remember, we agreed It is okay to be the messenger with bad news. You can expect a problem-solving response. As one of our ground rules. I understand you were frustrated, but we should not take it out on the messenger.”

Agreement

Encourage Team Enforcement

Ideally, the team should police itself against the ground rules it jointly created. This might take some practice to establish, but having the project manager as the sole enforcer is ineffective. When violations occur or when the ground rules are being discussed, ensure the team ownership is emphasized. So, refer to them as our ground rules or the team ground rules, not the organization’s or even the project’s which might be more associated with only the project manager.

Serious Offender

Handling Serious Offenders

Nobody likes having to remove team members, but sometimes it is the best thing for the team. Repeat offenders, bullies and discrimination are reasons why team members may need to be removed if coaching and then HR intervention do not work.

Underperformance might also be an issue, but people should be allowed to learn and improve. Only then, if the effort is not there, should HR be consulted and options for reassignment or removal be considered. 

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Dealing with underperforming and problematic team members is one of the most challenging and draining activities project managers contend with. The combination of team ground rules, the code of ethics, and knowledge and support from HR will help somewhat.

Deliverables and Tools

  • Ground rules
  • Team Norms
  • Team Charter
  • Brainstorming
  • Negotiation skills
  • Conflict Management
  • Ethics

Related Topics

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