Remember the best-selling book All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten? It highlighted how the rules of the sandbox apply to real-life – rules like respect each other, don’t say hurtful things, and share your toys. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s one thing that defines truly great teams – and that’s whether or not they have a set of team operating principles to guide them.
These “rules of engagement” or “team operating principles” can go a long way toward minimizing team conflicts and helping people build
Operating principles are the rules of the road that enable people to know what’s in bounds – and what’s out-of-bounds – in their companies and workplaces. Operating principles can serve as guides, helping people make sound decisions, building trust and enabling greater innovation.
Operating principles for teams can take many forms. They can be short and sweet; they can be long and detailed. The important point is to take the time to define them. You wouldn’t play a game of baseball or football without defining the rules. It’s no different for the workplace.
Whole Foods Market is an example where rules of play are in force. One of its rules deals with its vendor relationships. The rule states that employees will treat suppliers “… with respect, fairness and integrity, and expect the same in return… Any conflicts must be mediated and win-win solutions found. Creating and nurturing this community of stakeholders is critical to the long-term success of our company.”
When Whole Foods found itself in the middle of a conflict with its largest supplier, it used this rule to ensure a successful outcome. Rather than try to impose a solution, it devoted thousands of hours to communication and mediation. The result was a new agreement that both sides hailed.
Rule 1: On time, on budget, no excuses.
Rule 2: Information is to be shared, not hoarded.
Rule 3: Bad news is not like wine. Share it right away.
Rule 4: Conflicts can only be resolved by communication, not triangulation.
I typically start with a few examples, like the ones above. I ask people to name the ones that seem particularly on point. And I ask them to explain why. For example, I shared with a team the four rules that the software company had developed. One person immediately said she liked the rule: “Bad news is not like wine, it doesn’t get better with age.” So, I wrote that down on a flip chart.
As the facilitator, I asked them to think about situations where conflict regularly occurs and how a ground-rule or operation principle might help address it. Someone said: “We need to consider the needs of the people we work with in our communication – and make sure our expectations are clear and not leave them wondering.” I added that to the list. Another person said: “We work in a lot of gray areas. We have to empower each other to make our best decisions and move on.” That got added to the list.
After 45 minutes of brainstorming, we had drafted a list of nine operating principles for this team. People were clearly happy with what they’d come up with. I suggested to the manager that she review the list and make whatever refinements she wanted. And then circulate the list once more before finalizing.
Google has ten operating principles that guide its work:
Here are 15 operating principles from O’Reilly Media:
Colorcon has six operating principles:
UC Berkeley has five operating principles:
Each organization elaborates on each point to clarify what they mean. For example, with UC Bekeley’s operating principle, “We include and excel, together” they add: “We cultivate trust, treat one another with respect and assume good intentions. We actively include different perspectives and work cooperatively within and across departments. We thrive when we celebrate the diversity in our community and our common commitment to equity, inclusion and equal access to all.”
Core values capture what is essential to the success of the organization as a whole and are, along with its purpose statement, the organization’s fundamental genetic material, its DNA. For example, ethical integrity, customer satisfaction, and reliability are examples of core values. I believe that core values should be backed up by the specific behaviors needed to demonstrate the value. (I sometimes refer to these behaviors as “we statements.” ) Those behaviors should apply to everyone in the organization.
Operating principles provide more specific detail about how a given team or group intends to behave and operate, for example, spelling out how team members are supposed to interact with other team members or talk to the media. Operating principles can be informed by core values. For example, if customer satisfaction is a core value, a team operating principle might be, “We respond to each other’s requests within 24 hours.”
Fort Wayne Metals separates values from operating principles in the following way:
Through engagement you build ownership. This is true whether you’re developing an organization’s core values or a team’s operating principles. From a process perspective, I believe a good leader or manager should articulate an initial draft of the operating principles and then engage their teammates or colleagues in understanding and refining them. An effective leader would ultimately bring closure to the process and say: “After a lot of work, I believe that these operating principles are key to our success as a team. Let’s all commit to upholding them.” And from there, he or she would pay attention to examples – and celebrate the examples – of people demonstrating the principles.
For example, at a $500 million non-profit that provides care to people with disabilities, the CEO has an operating principle that says, “When work needs to get done, we all pitch in, regardless of role or rank.” Every month, they invite stakeholders to discuss the quality of services they provide. They feed people lunch and gather lots of useful feedback. And when the meeting is over and everyone has left the room, who pitches in to clean up? It’s the organization’s CEO and his executive team.
LRI can help facilitate a series of conversations to develop operating principles at the team or organizational level. Learn More >>
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