When is a Project Team Charter Important?

I’ve worked on some projects with a team charter and some without. I can’t ever remember thinking that the document that we all signed made much difference. But I’m completely convinced that gaining consensus on how people will behave is important. Before I go too far, let me explain the difference between a project charter and a project team charter.

In this blog on the essentials of project charters, I discuss the importance of project charters. They are, in my opinion, required.

Project team charters, on the other hand, can be ongoing agreements that span multiple projects or serve operational or educational needs. They can just be called team charters and can vary considerably from team to team. Some team charters are created for a particular project and cover many of the elements traditionally found in a project charter. While others are created to outline what behaviors are important to the team. If your team is highly diverse, and you are working with blended cultures, it is especially important to understand what values are important to everyone.

For example, how important is protecting intellectual property or shared conversations? Are there secrets that cannot be shared? What will team members do in the event of an overt act of racial or gender discrimination? How will disputes about how to solve complex problems get resolved? Is everyone on an equal footing, or are there some people who have to be treated with kid gloves? The list continues.

4 Recommendations Your Project Team Charter Should Include

In this blog, I offer four recommendations, partially gleaned from Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. These ideas can help your teams find better ways to work together and understand whether a team charter might help.

Much of this book is spent discussing our individual need to become more comfortable with our authentic selves. But some of what she shares can be applied to project teams as they seek to create cultures of belonging, safety, trust, and accountability. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that drafting a team charter relieves you of the hard work on team building.

Take the time to get to know each other well

It’s hard to overstate the importance of people knowing and understanding everyone on the team. Strong teams are comprised of people who have each other’s backs. They know how to hold everyone accountable, and can communicate effectively about complex, perhaps emotional, issues. They know how to call out bullshit, as Brene Brown says. This applies at all levels of the organization, regardless of seniority.

For example, I’ve written before about the failings on the Denver airport project. The sponsor on the project was very involved and emotionally committed to seeing the project through. There were many warnings. Yet no one on the team was able to call him out on his lack of objectivity.

In a highly functioning team, people show up and embrace others when they are experiencing pain or joy. Times of collective emotion remind us of what is possible and the goodness of humanity. According to noted neurologist, Oliver Sacks, as reported in Brown’s previously mentioned book, “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional….Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.” (Braving the Wilderness, p. 132)

In a highly functioning team, people show up and embrace others when they are experiencing pain or joy. Times of collective emotion remind us of what is possible and the goodness of humanity. #teamwork

Encourage belonging

In this book, Brown discusses the need for belonging. Project team members desperately need to feel that they belong to something. As we all stumble along in this COVID pandemic, and feel increasingly unable to connect safely, we are all grasping to belong.

In a BBC world news video with Alisa Cohn, she makes the case for using jargon, because she says it helps people on the team feel like they belong to the team. (Note: the video loads with sound.) For years, I’ve been advocating that businesses adopt a common project language, to minimize confusion. A language of jargon, or secret sayings, such as “peanut butter the raises” (which means spread them equally) accomplishes the same objective. The problem occurs when folks transfer this language to other environments, often excluding others.

Focus on values over rules

I’ve seen several team charters that have an agreed upon list of behavioral rules. There’s nothing wrong with a charter that spells out some rules. But I often see people just finding a way to circumvent them when their wants or needs seem to collide. I’m inclined to believe that a handful of uncompromising values is a better choice.

What values are important? In Gus Lee and Diane Elliott-Lee’s book, Courage: The Backbone of Leadership, the authors discuss how companies create their core values (or don’t). The authors are concerned that some companies miss the mark when they don’t select at least one “high core value.” According to Lee, there are only three high core values — integrity, courage, and character. Medium core values — such as excellence, teamwork, and customer focus — are fine, but they all really depend on high core values.

Set and communicate boundaries

Particularly in a COVID-19 world, boundaries are essential. We have to understand what sandbox we are playing in. And we need to learn how and when to be in our sandbox.

Document your project roles and responsibilities to help people on the team understand where their sandboxes are. Use team meetings to help teams play together in the same sandbox. This is also a time to reinforce team understandings and build effectiveness.

Need more help on understanding the value of a project team charter or building more effective teams? Why don’t you sign up for my newsletter?

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Suzanne S. Davenport

Writes on project management, leadership, team building, and value delivery. Imagining work management in the future. Smartprojex.com