Do You Need a Team Charter?

Mina Lee July 10, 2017

Picture Team A, a group working on launching a new product at a successful midsize company. One associate worries that if she asks to spend time with her newborn, the rest of the team will think she’s not committed. Meanwhile, her boss just poked holes through another associate’s idea in front of top company managers, leaving him wondering if he should look for a new job. The work is getting done, but most people leave meetings feeling drained and confused, and morale is waning.

Now imagine Team B, with the same external goal. Meetings are a place for laughter and connection in addition to productivity; everyone’s smiling before they even start. When someone suggests a new idea, the group takes time to consider whether it emerged from a place of fear or creativity and if it makes sense to prioritize it. When conflict arises or hard decisions need to be made, the team returns to its clear statement of values and principles to see if an answer lies there.

Which team is more likely to have a rewarding, positive impact on its members, achieve its goals, and create real change in the world? Which would you rather be a part of?

The Best Teams Are Communities of Practice and Purpose 

Team B is an example of what I call a “Community of Practice and Purpose” (CoPP). In contrast to spiritual communities focused on personal growth, or traditional business or volunteer communities focused on action, CoPPs are a hybrid that recognizes that our inner and outer worlds are linked. CoPPs focus on both personal development (practice) and contribution to the world (purpose). They are avenues for the personal growth and development of the individual, as well as avenues for the individual to express his or her purpose and contribution to the external world. No matter where you are, if you’re coming together with others for a purpose, you can be in a CoPP. And there’s more good news: as an individual, you can shift the communities you are already a part of towards practice and purpose.

Why Communities of Practice and Purpose are Important

Communities are at the root of social change, and are necessary for the integration and continuity of personal transformation. But don’t be misled into thinking that community is something that only happens once in a while, in particular settings. As humans, we’re always in community, anytime we’re in a relationship with a shared context and shared call to action. That could be with a partner, within a family unit, with employees, on a board, or with investors, for example.

At their best, communities hold their members accountable to commitments each person makes to themselves on how they want to show up, and provide reflections to uncover the roots of our unconscious patterns. A growing movement recognizes that communities of practice and purpose are crucial for creating the leaders of the future, as a leader’s personal development is directly related to how well they can manage volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity (or VUCA, as they call it at Google).

Within the business world, regardless of industry, nourishing communities within and outside of an organization ensures its evolution and growth. Creating meaningful communities to engage customers, suppliers, investors, and partners over the long term develops enduring relationships that don’t fade with the latest trend. Meanwhile, communities within a company create more fluid knowledge networks and accelerate talent development as people coach each other more often. This culture persuades employees to stay and recruit their friends, increasing an organization’s talent competitiveness, especially among millennials. It also creates a constantly evolving talent pool from which innovative solutions can spring.

At the core, the underlying “why” for CoPP is human development. Creating these communities is a way to truly understand ourselves through our relationships and what we create in the world. A CoPP responds to a deep spiritual yearning, yet is grounded in doing something about the here and now.

Start with a Team Charter

Most likely, communities are already happening organically within your company and in your life as cohorts and colleagues come together to share information, support or coach each other, or accomplish tasks. One of the best ways to turn any community or team into a real CoPP is to start by writing down the group’s core principles in a shared team charter document. Think of this as a commitment the group members are making to each other concerning how to interact and what they’re trying to accomplish.

Having a clear charter can help point to routines, rituals, and practices you’ll want to implement when you meet, and it also frees members from the need to ask for permission all the time when making decisions about how to act on behalf of the group. Everyone becomes self-authoring and empowered as long as they’re acting in accordance with the principles. A charter is also useful because it allows the group structure to hold up even if a key leader goes away. And having clear, up-front agreements that the whole team buys into allows for much easier adjustment when someone falls out of line. It’s much easier to reflect on information and make a course correction about something a person has agreed to than to impose a need from the outside. No one gets empowered in monologue!

What Belongs in a Team Charter

Team charters should be full of actionable sentences that you can do something about. This is different from your team values. You can have a value of “integrity,” for example, but what does it mean to act that way? What are the commitments that you make to execute that value? For integrity, the commitment could be “We will do what we say, and we will inform each other beforehand if for some reason things change.”

In addition to affirmative commitments, charters should also include boundaries: what you’re not going to do. Defining the negative is a helpful way to get clarity, and setting firm, authentic, mutually agreed-upon boundaries lets team members trust each other to take care of their needs and thus be in deeper connection. What do you need in order to be at your best? For example: “We will avoid phone calls or emails over the weekend unless a decision needs to be made within 24 hours with revenue on the line.”

Finally, to create an effective guiding vision, a team charter should include your ideas of how you want to feel as you relate to each other; this is the part that most people forget. Close your eyes and visualize how you are relating to each other in the future. What’s the tone? Does it feel friendly, inspiring, allowing, playful, easy, open, authentic?

How to Create Your Team Charter

How exactly you get started writing your charter will depend on the size and nature of the group, how well the members already know and understand each other, and how invested they are in going deep to become a CoPP.

For a 200-person spiritual community that I’m a part of, the four primary leaders drafted the initial version of our charter, then brought it to the group. This worked because gathering for practice and purpose was already why everyone was there, so we just needed to come up with guidelines for how to hold that space. At the Boston Consulting Group, where I worked as a consultant, every new team I joined was its own community. The manager would suggest the operating principles of how they liked to work, the team would discuss and give feedback, then a partner would read and sign off on the final version, leading to top-to-bottom buy-in. Meanwhile, for a 10-person board with lots of new members, I’d recommend that the person drafting the charter do one-on-one interviews with each member to get their feedback and buy-in before bringing a draft to them as a group.

While the exact method for getting started will vary depending on the situation, any team should follow these three basic steps.

1 // Inquire and check in to create an initial draft.

An initial leader or small group should head the charge to start. Ask the questions below, and the ones above in the “what belongs” section, to begin articulating a set of initial commitments and principles. If you know the group well or you’re the one really setting the tone, check in with yourself about them. Otherwise, consider interviewing key team members to get a sense of what’s important to them.

  • What’s really important with what we’re doing?
  • What are our values, and how do we live them? In other words, what does someone doing that look like? What are the behaviors we admire?
  • Why are we really here? Why did we decide to become a part of this, from a personal point of view?
  • What kind of success do we want to celebrate as a community?
  • What is the pain we want to relieve?

2 // Get alignment and buy in.

Once the core group of leaders has a working principles document, invite feedback from the larger community. A key tip here is that the power of the principles document is contingent on the conviction of its ambassadors and how committed they are to living those values already. Move from that conviction inside of you and don’t be apologetic about asking for and presenting the idea. Trust. Trust that all people want connection and are looking for clarity and safety to connect. You are creating a pathway for them to feel safe to express their needs and wants. (As a side note, Google found after two years of research and millions of dollars that this psychological safety was the number one factor for high-performing teams.) At this point, you’re trying to instill ownership in and emotional buy-in with the document among all members of the community, so really listen to what they have to say and their concerns.

3 // Live it.

Develop rituals and practices to anchor your principles in the way your community interacts. For example, if feeling gratitude and connection is important for how you want to be, you might want to start every meeting with a single-sentence gratitude statement from each person. As a guideline, speaking from “I” versus “we” or “you” creates more connection, vulnerability, and space for people to share their own experience separate from yours. Whatever the rituals, make sure there’s always someone designated to be in the lead to hold the space and remind the community that these principles are important.

Depending on the cadence of the group’s work together, I recommend reviewing the charter and reiterating it nearly every time you meet so that you turn what’s on paper into a living culture.

Finally, whenever the group asks a strategic question, see if the principles can help answer it and guide decisions. Ideally, this charter will give you guidance on what to do in tough situations.

The True Power of Community

What if communities were the new social and human success metric? What if we could see the human relationships and connections we foster as the legacies, products, or outputs of our companies and our lives? We’d create a world with less loneliness, fewer silos, and more common ground — more connection, more elation, more growth and progress, and more leverage for an organization’s underlying cause and purpose.

It is widely believed that Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” CoPPs recognize that in order to solve today’s challenges, we need to work together and evolve our inner consciousness as we go. In other words, we are what we create and we create what we are. The first step in creating what we want — both in ourselves and as communities — is to get clear with each other on how we’ll do that. Start with the charter, then go from there.


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