Social Contracts and the Agile Team – Part 1

Social Contracts and the Agile Team – Part 1

It’s a scenario we’ve all been a part of before.  To shake things up, your Agile teams are being restructured.  After the initial shuffle, the team gets together for a first meeting to figure out how it is going to work.  Introductions are made, experiences are shared.  Maybe a team lead is named.  It’s a heady time full of expectations.  Following the cycle of Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing, phase one is off to a good start.

At the first team retro, a better understanding of what everyone brings to the team starts to take shape.  Relationships and communications within the team, as well as other players within the organization, take root.  The team also starts to get a sense of where there are some gaps.  Maybe it’s a misunderstanding of how code reviews work, or how cards are pointed.  Storming has happened, and the team is ready to begin the transition to the Norming phase.

I’d suggest that team norms, which tend to be prescriptive in nature, falls short of what the stakeholders are hoping it will.  Instead, I’d suggest that a social contract is a better concept to work towards.

A social contract is a team-designed agreement for an aspirational set of values, behaviors and social norms.  They not only set expectations but responsibilities.  Instead of being focused on how individual team members should approach the work of the team and organization, it lays out the responsibilities of the team members to each other.  It also lays out the responsibilities and expectations between the team and the organization.

What would this type of contract look like?  It should call out both sides of a relationship.  An example of part of a social contract may look like this:

  • The Team promises to place value through deliverable software as the highest goal to the organization, as defined by the Product Owner
  • The Team promises to raise any obstacles preventing them from delivering value immediately
  • The Organization promises to address and remove obstacles in a timely manner to the best of their ability
  • The Organization promises to maintain reasonable stability of the team so that it has the opportunity to mature and reach its highest potential

In the spirit of the social contract, this should be discussed and brainstormed with open minds and constructive dialog with both sides of the social equation.  In truly Agile fashion, it should also be considered an iterative process, and reviewed from time to time to ensure the social contract itself is providing value.

I’m often asked how to create empowered teams.  The question usually includes the exclamation “I told them they’re empowered, but they’re not acting like it”, and an expectation that I’ll be able to provide a successful formula or recipe that can be replicated.  Well, I don’t have a specific formula, but here are some important concepts I’ve learned.

Empowerment is a two-way street
It’s not enough to anoint people or teams as “empowered”, they need an environment that is congruent with empowerment, and they have to accept the mantle of being empowered.

Providing an empowering environment is the responsibility of leadership, top-to-bottom in an organization; accepting the mantle of empowerment is the responsibility of each individual and team.

As individual team-members go, so goes the team
Even in exactly the same environment, different teams will likely exhibit different levels of empowerment, because each individual team members’ level of acceptance is different.  Personal style, culture, history, experience, values, comfort with ambiguity, and risk tolerance all affect an individual’s willingness to “be empowered”, and the extent to which they exercise that empowerment.

While you and I will vary in how we embrace empowerment, we both need the same conditions to be met.  To feel and act empowered, we need:

Clarity – I am clear about what needs to be accomplished (intent), and why it’s important (value), even if the how is uncertain.  I understand the purpose and what success looks like.

Ability – I have the knowledge and skills to do it, even if I don’t have specific experience.

Agency – I have the authority to make decisions about how I do it.

Safety – I feel safe to do it. To make decisions and act; to fail so I can learn; to communicate honestly and openly.

Belief – I believe I can do it. I have self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Interest – I am interested in doing it.

Creating an Empowering Environment
Julian Rappaport, in “Studies of Empowerment” (1984) said “it is easy to define empowerment by its absence, but difficult to define in action as it takes on different forms in different people and contexts.”

Regardless of how it’s accomplished, successful empowering environments satisfy the conditions identified above, and actively encourage and support individuals to grow in these areas.  There are underlying themes that work from one organization to another, including:

  • Don’t solve people’s problems – help them learn how to solve their own
  • Change the language – thoughtfully replacing key phrases can have a huge impact
  • Truly believe in the good intent of others – people don’t set out to do the wrong thing
  • Make learning important – not training, although that’s a component, but learning by doing
  • Give permission to fail –we learn the most when we’re free to fail
  • Provide opportunities to succeed – it builds confidence
  • Decisions are choices, accept the consequences of yours – and show others how to do the same
  • Be curious – but don’t question, it erodes confidence
  • Become story tellers – stories inspire and provide context and clarity
  • Set reasonable boundaries – and help others learn to expand them to broaden their sphere of control
  • Expect honesty – not compliance
  • Walk your talk – be visible and show how it’s done
  • Help them learn to walk – challenge people to step outside their comfort zones, and support them

For a story of what Stephen R. Covey calls “the most empowering organization I’ve ever seen”, check out the book Turn This Ship Around by L. David Marquet.

I’d love to hear your thoughts….how do you help create a sense of empowerment?