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Posted by on Aug 20, 2012

Stepping on PM TOE’s

Management Concepts teaches that the second Project Management principle is “All projects must be defined”. There are three aspects to the principle: with whom will you be working (stakeholders), what will you be doing (charter), and how will you work together (team operating agreement). The stakeholder and charter aspects get plenty of press in Project Management, but what about the Team Operating Expectations (TOE’s)? A Team Operating Agreement is an effective tool to keep you from stepping on PM TOE’s.

In the PMBOK® Guide, Chapter 9 – Project Human Resources Management, there is information on “Ground Rules” which states:

“Ground rules establish clear expectations regarding acceptable behavior by project team members. Early commitment to clear guidelines decreases misunderstandings and increases productivity. The process of discussing ground rules allows team members to discover values that are important to one another. All project team members share responsibility for enforcing the rules once they are established.”

My experience has taught me that creating a Team Operating Agreement (TOA) early in the life of the team is an essential success factor. I learned this lesson working on a very large, multinational project which had never been done before.

The purpose of a TOA in to establish “rules of engagement” or how participants will play nice in the team environment. It is important to establish the rules before you need them. Once you need them and don’t have them, personal emotions may make it impossible to create them. Once they are collaboratively created, ALL agree to follow these rules. Below is an example of how I apply them in the classroom. You can adapt them to your specific project, team, deliverable, or environment.

  • Class start/stop – Establish the beginning and end of each class day. Clear guidelines decreases misunderstandings and increases productivity.
  • Lunch – Establish when and how long to break.
  • Breaks – Establish when and how long.
  • Interrupt respectfully – We don’t call people names and we respect their opinion while waiting for our turn to speak. This is my “no fist fighting” rule. Emotions can run high in stressed teams. We plan early to play nice.
  • Take interruptions outside – Life and work will interrupt us. Take interruptions out of the classroom, deal with them, and then reconnect with the class. Don’t try to multitask in class. It causes you to be a disruption and annoys the other participants.
  • Set devices to “stun” – Set all telephones, pages, etc., to silent so you do not disrupt the class. Deal with devices at breaks and “outside”, if necessary.
  • Decisions by ________________ – Assist participants in defining a decision method for the class and (possibly) each team. This is also a quick review of decision methods. Don’t forget the instructor has executive override (sometimes called Benevolent Dictator [BD]) so that the course timing and material are delivered efficiently. Usually Consensus or Majority are selected with the BD caveat added.
  • Always encourage – Find ways to be positive with your responses and your feedback to others.
  • The “Team’s the thing” – The instructor is not your second grade teacher. You don’t need his/her permission to make adult decisions about your participation. If you must be absent for short periods of time, check out and in with your team. They are responsible for ensuring that you catch up what you missed and carrying your responsibility while absent.
  • This is a safe place – Ensure that this is a safe place where participants can discuss difficult issues without fear of reprisal outside of the class. “What happens in here stays in here” is the expected outcome. If the instructor cannot get full agreement, then he/she will need to avoid sensitive discussions about processes and organizations and declare that this is NOT a safe place.
  • Pull the Curtain – This is a theatrical reference to a stage play. While the play is in progress, there are activities going on backstage in preparation for the next act. If the curtain were opened we could see the stuff going on in the background. In the classroom, if a process is not working or is confusing, the participants have the right and privilege to “pull the curtain” or stop the class until the confusion or process has been addressed. At that point the curtain is closed and the regular class resumes. This is an empowering activity for the participants and assists the instructor in not missing the value of the course. A personal caution here. If you are not totally comfortable with having a class or meeting stopped then you may not want to include pull the curtain in your TOA. You are allowing the team to stop your process and question its validity. This activity ensures that the process or meeting or classroom activity is clear and well understood. You must be comfortable with stopping a process in order to establish clarity and close the curtain and get back to business.The PM’s experience plus the organizational behavior of the participants should be incorporated into the TOA process. The items above are suggestions and not designed to be the only collection of rules of engagement for the team.
  • ELMO (Enough already! Let’s Move On!) – Allows participants to curb discussions and rehashing old material.

As mentioned, the TOA must be created by the team early in the life of the team. When you need the TOA and you don’t have it, it is probably too late to create it as human emotion will overcome the process. Play nice rules and team agreement are essential to smoothly completing deliverables in a team environment. Good luck with not stepping on PM TOE’s!

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