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Yes, You Should Have a Team Charter

Geoff Schaadt

There is a popular mythos that lives in our collective psyche of the solitary genius, toiling away, alone in his garage. After years of lonely, unappreciated work he emerges to stun us all with his visionary, world-changing invention.

Except it never works that way.

Famed biographer, Walter Isaacson, highlights in his most recent book – The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution – the importance of collaboration and teamwork in the creation of our online and computer-driven world. Jobs, Wozniak, Berners-Lee, von Neumann, Gates, Page, all of them had to embrace teamwork.

Great things are created by (great) teams.

The Team Charter

The Team Charter, like a project charter, delineates roles and responsibilities, outlines the project objectives, identifies the main stakeholders, and serves as a reference of authority for the future of the project.

This is increasingly important as cross-functional teams become more common in an effort to “break down silos”.

So, if you want to avoid a lot of the friction that these cross-functional teams go through as they move through the stages of maturity before becoming a great team, you need to recognize that cross-functional teams will bring a number of unique challenges as it’s more difficult to set priorities, make decisions, motivate people, and manage performance when you don’t have direct authority over members of the team.

A Team Charter can have a material impact on these issues as it will:

  • Eliminate assumptions about how things will work and how people will work together;
  • Ensure that everyone has a shared understanding of the why, what, who, when, where, and how;
  • Guide the work of the individual team members;
  • Get team members, key managers, and stakeholders to help shape, agree on, and commit to the principles and the roles and responsibilities;
  • Create accountability to one another and to the organization; and,  
  • Help build trust between team members.

A good Team Charter emerges naturally through a process of negotiation between the team, the team leader, the sponsor, and other stakeholders.

Creating and including statements to clearly define and communicate the team’s vision, strategy and execution plans – a VSE statement – is an important first step to take and one that we highly recommend.

Don’t Skip These

There is no one right way to create a Team Charter, but beyond a VSE statement you should really not skip over the sections that define the “how we do things here” question.

Roles and Responsibilities (Relationships)

Define the roles and responsibilities assigned to each member of the project team as well as those of any stakeholders and working groups that have a significant influence on the project.

List each team member and define the roles and responsibilities of each:

  • Who will be the team leader?
  • Who is the liaison between the team and the other stakeholders?
  • Who is responsible for what tasks and outcomes?

Ground Rules

Here is a list of “Ground Rules” that are commonly adopted by cross-functional teams.

Your team should discuss them, adopt the ones that they like, discard the ones they don’t – add and modify as needed. The important point is that everyone agrees and commits to the final list. And the most important aspect of this list – everyone agrees to hold each other accountable. It is not the responsibility of the team leader to be the behaviour police.

It is also not the responsibility of the team lead to determine what the ground rules should be. In fact, the first ground rule should probably be: the team lead does not get to set the ground rules. In the case where the team is a true cross-functional group, power grabs of this nature are likely to result in resentment, an immediate loss of trust, and passive commitment to the group – all of which are cancerous to a great team.

  • Treat each other with respect.
  • Value constructive feedback.
  • Do not avoid healthy conflict.
  • Recognize and celebrate individual and team accomplishments.
  • Hold regular meetings (alternate times to accommodate time zones).
  • The team leader will publish and distribute an agenda by... Team members are responsible for contacting the team leader to add items.
  • Meetings start promptly on time.
  • Maintain an action item list with responsibilities, review it in meetings, and distribute it with meeting minutes.
  • Balanced participation of all team members.
  • Meeting minutes will be taken and distributed by…
  • Each and every team member is given a turn to speak their mind. Be brief and focus on facts, not opinions, and respect the group’s time and meeting timetables.
  • Open and honest communication – no hidden agendas.
  • De-personalize the discussion of issues – no attacks on people.
  • Listen, be non-judgmental, and keep an open mind on issues until it is time to decide.
  • Collaborate.
  • Important decisions and issues will be decided…Rely on the subject matter expert with input from others for less important decisions
  • Do not tolerate passive commitment. Agreeing means you are all in.
  • When you bring up an issue or a problem try also to propose a solution.
  • No multi-tasking during meetings.

Yes, You Should Have a Team Charter.

Why should you invest the time and energy this exercise will take?

It will give the group direction. It will give the group clarity in accepted behaviours. And, most important, it will allow you to quickly work through the inevitable conflict that will emerge as the team matures.

Do you use Team Charters in your organization? I would love to hear how they worked for you, what was valuable, and what you would skip if you could do it over.

Charter Photo: Tishch Library Special Collections via Compfight cc
Rugby Photo: Edd Armitage OLD-ACCOUNT via Compfight cc


Great idea. To clarify, in the domain of leadership, it is not the charter that is valuable - it is the work that has to be done to create one is what is important.

This is ongoing work throughout the project, some of the issues or behaviours on your list are often very deep seated and will take on-going coaching to loosen up.

This done, it is often not necessary to even write them down.

What I have found helpful is to have an initial meeting with the team describing the environment that we want to create, that we will work on.  Everyone needs to sign up for this vision to be part of the team.  There are ways to do this without offending anyone.

I know what you mean about a “power grab” - but someone has to be in charge - especially if that one is being held to account by upper management.

Of course this begs the question: how skilled are the (project) leaders in creating this environment?

By Philip Hawkins on 2015/01/14

Great comments, Phil.

My favourite, “ is the work that has to be done to create one is what is important.” Yes, yes, and hallelujah, yes!

That is the simple fact that passes so many people by. How often do we hear something like, “Yea, we did that, but we shoved it in a drawer and never looked at it again.” They miss the point.

By Geoff Schaadt on 2015/01/14

I don’t want to belabour the point, but, as you said, when I was Quality Manager at a large computer company, I went to a meeting to be told “we did quality last year”(!)

Similarly with company mission statements, exactly as you said, they were shoved in a drawer never looked at again.  Clearly the mission statement was not useful.  When I questioned senior management about this the response was “well, we spent half a day on it!” Implyng, to me anyway, that they thought that was already too much time.

Maybe leadership is just doing the right thing, no matter how hard it seems.  To be fair, managers are not typically trained in these skills, so I am sure they feel lost when attempting (or even thinking about attempting) to do it.

By Philip Hawkins on 2015/01/16

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