Rules, Rules, Rules

Dec 28, 2010 15 Comments by

Anyone who’s participated on a project in a team setting has probably heard the term “ground rules” tossed around.  Sometime the term applies to a useful set of axioms that cooperative team members follow to guide their civil and productive interaction.  Sometimes it refers to a nice poster on the wall of all company conference rooms that gets utterly ignored as people bash each other, dominate each others’ conversations and generally make life as miserable as if the poster were not tying up the wall space.

Have you been in meetings like this one?

Having A Few Good Rules Wouldn’t Hurt: Today I’d like to share a few useful ground rules that I have seen work for teams that I have either lead or been a part of.  I will also be totally honest and tell you that I have been on many teams where I have helped create the ground rules only to watch them slip into oblivion… so I will also share a few tips on how to make them stick.

Not all of my rules will make sense in your environment and I am sure you will have seen others that I have missed. (I would love it if you could please share your favorite team ground rules using the comment link below.)

So here are a few of my favorites:

1. Everyone’s opinion matters. That doesn’t mean everyone is right or that everyone will get their way – but it does mean that we all agree to at least listen to the ideas of others before criticizing them.  We’ll encourage participation and keep the door open to more good ideas regardless of the initial source.

According to the BBC, a set of the ultimate team grond rules - the stone tablets used in the 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, were made in consultation with experts in their field. Only five pairs of the tablets are known to still exist.

2. Focus on Outcomes & Results: We’ll always consider what the end result of the team’s work needs to look like as we toil.  If we start to drift into a ditch, let’s call each other back to the project goals and objectives – then let that clarity guide our decisions and our work.

3. It’s OK to disagree – but do so with respect.  We’ll agree to be respectful with each other even if we have differing opinions.  This one shouldn’t need explanation, but sadly it has been my experience that too often it does. : o (  Sometime team members can avoid a lot of frustration downstream by carefully choosing not only their words – but their style of delivering their message.

4. Keep a United Front: Especially for projects where there is a public-facing element, it’s critical that the team members not only stay on the same page – but communicate that they are on the same page.  Nothing sinks a well-developed positive message more than a few well-placed words of sabotage by “well-meaning insiders”. We’ll agree to disagree in the project room but maintain a unified front and support our joint decisions outside the room.

5. Focus on the customer. As a team, we’ll agree to consider the needs of our stakeholders as our primary focus. It’s easy to say this for a company or a team that produces a clear consumer product or service… but don’t forget that your team has internal “customers” who depend on you to get things done too.  Sometimes the customer is your project’s sponsor, sometimes it’s a field user, sometimes it’s the person sitting next to you.

6. Seek consensus – Our goal for every decision will be a uniform consensus of all those involved.  Since this may not always be possible, we will also have a clear escalation process to resolve any stalemates and keep momentum for the project.  We’ll always have a back-up plan to get resolution on tough decisions in the event we get stuck.

7. Focus on the data and the facts. As we face challenges and solve problems, we’ll seek valid data and applicable facts from all sides of the given issue. We’ll avoid focusing on personalities – and instead keep the data and the facts in front of us as we work to get resolution.

8. Honor the time & efforts of team members. We won’t waste time in meetings beating around the bush or hacking on dead issues. We’ll use effective meeting techniques to get the work done in the absolute minimum amount of invested time. When we’re in a conversation, we’ll stick to the subject at hand and treat the other person’s time as if it is just as valuable as our own – because it is.

9. Give each other the “benefit of the doubt”. We’ll assume everyone’s best interests are focused on the project being successful – even if we disagree on how to do that from time to time. We’ll avoid offending each other and try not to take offense when none is intended.

10. Be transparent: We’ll be open about what we need and why. We’ll avoid hidden agendas and keep the main topic of conversation out on the table until it’s resolved. We’ll avoid “working in silos”.  We’ll involve everyone who needs to be involved in a given topic and share the results of discussions and decisions with everyone who’s impacted.

Summary: Teams that follow a clear set of ground rules are typically more effective than those who don’t because they have a baseline of expectations for human behavior that helps them avoid common pitfalls. The list above is a starting point based on some project teams that I have lead or been a part of. I’m sure you have a few favorites that you might add to the list.  If so, I’d encourage you to hit the comment link below and add to the list so everyone who visits this article can gain from your experience!

Tomorrow I will give you some tips on how to make your ground rules actually stick…


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What other great ground rules have you used on your teams?
  2. What is the biggest pitfall that teams can avoid by simply setting a few clear ground rules “up front”?

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  • Charlton Hestons stone tablets

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

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15 Responses to “Rules, Rules, Rules”

  1. Overcome EMail Overload | theBigRocks of Change says:

    […] teams should allow their members to actually use their email or smartphone during a meeting. (read “Team Ground Rules” and “Making Ground Rules […]

  2. theBigRocks Change Agent Tip #5: Celebrate Along the Way! says:

    […] Making Ground Rules Stick (Establish & enforce effective team ground rules) […]

  3. Steve Chihos says:

    Thanks for the great additions and comments everyone!
    Sounds like we may need a follow-up post to update the list…

  4. Lui Sieh says:

    Good list!

    The only quibble I would have is #6 about consensus.

    I think what is more important is that everyone has equal voice&airtime – and in this case I agree that your #1 is really the most important ground rule because it sets the tone. We need to stress the appropriate behaviors which to me is having effective communications. When you have this in your project team, a lot of good things come out of that, consensus being one of them as a result of people’s “buy-in” from their participation.


  5. Jim Yates says:


    An excellent list – I think that most of the sets of ground rules I’ve helped develop or seen have embodied the essence of these ideas.

    As I have commented on one of your other postings, I think it is crucial to get the team to develop their own version. You can guide and contribute but it is not usually a good idea to impose – if you do, they’re your rules not theirs!

    Three other angles I try to get covered are:

    Speak up – don’t keep your views, issues or problems to yourself, everyone else may have missed it [hopefully avoids those “water cooler” discussions]

    Assume positive intent – if somebody does or says something you think is negative, try to understand [and find out] why they think as they do – you could be wrong about the issue and / or the motivation.

    Don’t store up bad news for the next meeting – get it out into the open so someone can deal with it.

    Hope this helps

  6. Jim Morgan says:

    All human groups create ground rules: It is a given of small group psychology that a group cannot form without developing what scientists call “social norms.” The problem is, these usually develop organically, undiscussed and unwritten, and thus become a significant source of conflict and inefficiency. It is a good idea for a manager to set guidelines like those you propose, Steve (all of which I like), but I think it is equally important to let each group of workers create its own rules based on members’ preferences. I do this by asking something like, “What drives you crazy about working on a team?” I keep the focus on observable behaviors. After brainstorming answers, we revise the list to make it as short as possible and then convert each behavior into a rule. Finally, and most critically, we create a self-enforcement method so people feel safe confronting each other when rules appear to be broken. This is my most powerful tool in eliminating the “Storming” phase of team development.

  7. Hashim says:

    Thanks Steve – reminder of good old PGS days!
    One more was $10 for being late to a meeting :) – team parties fund…

  8. Balachander Subramanian says:

    I think when the team receives the views/opinions of group members in an objective manner, most of the discussions lead to positive/constructive result.

    Each Company would benefit by posting these ground rules in their meeting halls, to avoid the discussions getting influenced by factors detrimental to the foreseen positive outcomes.

  9. Jed Simms says:

    One additional rule I’d add to the excellent list so far is:

    BE A PERSON OF YOUR WORD – if you say you’ll do something by x; then everyone can rely on you to perform and not come back with excuses

  10. Daniel Echeverria says:

    Good ones!
    Thanks for sharing them. I think it is the right way to start working with any team. if you don’t stick to them from the very start, relaxing comes very quickly.

  11. Linda Valentine-Dean, PMP says:

    Extremely useful to always start with ground rules. I have spent a greater portion of my career than I like “fixing” broken projects. One problem I have identified time and again is the failure of the project team to dance to the same tune, in some cases they aren’t even in the same ballroom.

    In these cases I start with a blank page RACI on the wall and the Leadership and work my way through the team structure in small groups. I always have on the wall the ground rules which are fairly close those you laid out in your article. These are the rules for the initial meetings and ultimately part of what are adopted for the re-initialized project.

    It is frankly shocking how badly team dynamics can disintegrate without some foundational rules. Oh, the stories I could tell.

  12. Ashok says:

    Jim, Steve
    Very good points both of you make. Role & Responsibility by each team member helps them to see the value they deliver and rules keep the team members as a cohesive group.

    I typically add a few more to the list (in addition to a few listed in the article) as I initiate my projects and have the first team meeting with shop floor employees and supervisors, which management likes a lot.

    Later the team members agree that it was good that we all agreed and kept the team rules in front of us.
    1. Team will generate multiple solutions (cannot depend on one solution).
    2. Potential solutions will be focused on “without Capital investment”
    3. Potential solutions will be workable by the team with little or no support of other functional areas (ask the question, “will I need some additional help to implement?”)

  13. Jim Millikin, PMP says:

    Good stuff, Steve.
    I believe that, in the initial team organizing meeting, every team member specifically and individually explains how he/she understands the project and his/her role, and expresses commitment to carry out assignments properly, and to work constructively with the other team members.

    Requiring people to articulate their commitment smokes out silent disengagement and gives everyone a chance to deal openly with issues of competing workload, etc. If the project manager has set things up right, there will be help for those who need it, and incentives for getting on board.

    There’s nothing like hearing words coming out of your own mouth to imprint their reality on your will.

  14. Perry Wilson says:

    A nice list of rules. I haven’t had the need to get the team to agree on project ground rules, but I’ve used them for meetings all the time. It’s a great way to manage the room when you all agree at the beginning of a meeting, or series of meetings, how you’ll proceed.
    It depends on the culture of the organization, but I have a few favorites that people like.

    For a series of meetings, we will start on time. If you come late we will bring you up to date when it doesn’t interrupt the flow.
    For single meetings:
    Share the air – allow others to speak, some people need a moment to gather their thoughts.
    Speak up – be respectful and raise any issues you see.

  15. Tweets that mention Rules Rules Rules | theBigRocks of Change -- says:

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