Defining team purpose and team values always helps – how to do it

Any team benefits from defining and writing down the team purpose and the team values that guide the daily work. Some teams include these in a team charter that is created with the team’s inception. Some teams do it later and they might even include working agreements Most teams don’t do it at all. That’s unfortunate because making team purpose and values explicit always helps.

These two are the basis of any team culture. They answer why the team exists and how the members want to collaborate. Thus, they help combat misunderstandings, give structure, increase identification with the team, and improve motivation as well as collaboration. Writing down the team purpose and team values (and maybe the working agreements) is crucial.

Today, I will share the way I usually do this when working with teams. 

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What are a team’s purposes and values?

Let’s start by clarifying what we are talking about. What are the team’s purpose, its values, and the working agreements?

The team’s purpose is its reason for existing. It explains why the team exists and what it is trying to accomplish. It doesn’t have to be fancy but it should give a concise summary of the team’s aim. This helps align the team toward a common goal and gives meaning by connecting the daily work to the said goal. 

The team values are the principles that guide the daily work. They are universal truths that the team believes in and thus shape how the team collaborates. The team values are the distillation of the team’s culture. Making these values explicit improves collaboration. More importantly, it increases identification with the team and thus helps build motivation. 

Besides purpose and values, some teams also write down working agreements. These are very specific small rules that the team members follow. They are a more granular definition of how the team wants to collaborate. While I advocate for writing down purposes and principles for all teams, I don’t feel that working agreements are always necessary. 

Below are some examples of purpose, values, and working agreements. 

Team purpose:

  • We help make our service agents’ work easier so that they can best serve our customers. 
  • We want to make buying car insurance as easy as buying a coffee.
  • We are the best at transforming data into information.

Team values

  • Open communication is important, even if it means having uncomfortable discussions. 
  • We are aware of our biases and subconscious decisions in product development. To counter, we frequently talk to and observe our users.
  • There are always reasons for one’s actions. It’s important to put ourselves into other people’s shoes.
  • We realize that life exists outside of work and to take this into account whenever possible.
  • We don’t forget to have fun.

Working agreements

  • Our core working hours are 10am until 1pm and we work from the office every Wednesday.
  • We do not assign stories to other people, only to ourselves. 
  • We always create meeting minutes in Confluence. The person who invites for a meeting is responsible for creating them and following up on To Dos.
  • We include the definition of done in each user story and only move a story to “Done” when we have checked all parts of the definition of done.

Don’t define team purpose and values right away

For most teams, I don’t recommend defining and writing down purpose, principles (and working agreements) upon first coming together. As covered previously, a new team in an established organization needs to build momentum first. The exception to that rule is when you are struggling to build. If you can’t get anything out of the door – perhaps due to a skeptical team or due to unmotivated team members – go ahead and make the purpose and values explicit in the beginning. It might help build some momentum. 

For all other teams, the right time to do so is after the initial period of frenzied building, when you have a little room to breathe. At that point, the team has already become familiar. A way of working has started to crystallize. You will have seen some things that work well and you might also have an idea of where some issues are. The team culture has started to form. This is a good base to start from. 

My default approach to making team purpose and team values explicit

We have now covered what team purpose, values, as well as working agreements are and why they are important. The question that remains is how do you go about making these artifacts explicit? The following is my default method to write them down. The process incorporates individual brainstorming to minimize influencing each other and downtime where the subconscious can continue to work.

If at all possible, try to do it in person. The results will be better. Also, regularly collaborating in person is crucial in team building

You can define all of three artifacts in one big workshop. I have found that to be very exhausting, though, and thus prefer writing down the purpose, principles, and working agreements in separate sessions. Below I have used the purpose as an example but the process is the same for values and working agreements. 

You don’t need more than 90 minutes for each artifact, as long as everyone is prepared. Schedule the workshop and the day before I recommend another 15 minute session. Here you briefly explain what you are trying to achieve. The team’s homework is to already think about purpose, principles, or working agreement and spend no more than 10 minutes during that day to write down what seems important to them. As a prompt you can ask the team to remember the best working experience they ever had and picture that team. This already gets the subconscious working.

The next day at the beginning of the actual meeting, you again give a short explanation and an outline of what will happen. Then, the team members do not share what they came up with to avoid influencing each other. Instead, they each spend 10 minutes individually formulating the team’s purpose based on what they (and their subconscious) came up with before. Everyone needs to write their first version down. 

Then, everyone shares their first version and a discussion follows, clarifying things that are unclear and sharing what the team liked or not. Now, encourage everyone to combine what they had with that from the others or build on their own based on the input received. This is again done individually for 10 minutes. 

If you at any point sense they are stuck, encourage taking a break and moving about, even going for a short walk.

Finally, you come together again, share, and discuss. Now, try to cluster, find themes and similarities, and jointly write down the first version of the team’s purpose. Schedule a follow up meeting of 15 minutes for the next day and give the team the homework to think about the first version. In the follow up meeting, simply ask if anything else came to mind since the workshop. Adjust the purpose if necessary. Then, you have your first version. Do exactly the same for the team values and working agreements and you are good to go.

This is how an agenda could look like.

11.00 – 11.15am: Intro
Goals and approach

10 minutes in the afternoon
Write down what comes to mind

9.30 – 11am: Team purpose workshop

  • 9.30 – 9.35: Introduction
  • 9.35 – 9.45 Individual brainstorming
  • 09.45 – 10.00 Discussion
  • 10.00 – 10.10 Individual brainstorming
  • 10.10 – 10.25 Discussion
  • 10.25 – 10.30 Break
  • 10.30 – 10.45 Summary & 1st version
  • 10.45 – 11.00 Wrap-up / Buffer

10 minutes in the afternoon
Reflect on 1st version

9.15 – 9.30 Retro
Share thoughts on 1st version
Apply changes if necessary

With this approach, it’s important to keep in mind that neither the purpose, nor values or working agreements are necessarily permanent. They can evolve. You can change them if you find them to no longer be true or if you would like to change how you collaborate.

Every few months, I tend to show them to the team in the retrospective and simply ask if everyone thinks what we came up with is still valid. If it’s not, we either need to change our behavior to get back to our values or think about adjusting what we initially came up with.

Inspect, reflect, and adapt

And there we are again, at the heart of successful product development: trying something, examining its effect, and adapting if necessary. It always does seem to come back to this principle, doesn’t it? 

Whether talking about actually building a product, adjusting Scrum to the situation at hand, or – as it is here – defining team purpose and team values, the key is to regularly take a step back, inspect and reflect on how it is going, and adapt if necessary. Keep this in mind and you will be fine.