Kickstart Your Project with Team Ground Rules

Ground rules for project team

What are ground rules?

When a new team meets to start work on some project, it is very important to establish some operating agreements which are called ground rules. These group rules are the set of values and guidelines which the team establishes consciously to help individual members to act properly. They articulate the set of expected behaviors for team members in the future.

Why are ground rules so important? Well, it is obvious that groups of people pulled together tend to be more complex in their behavior than people working on their own. Unfortunately, dysfunctional behavior which doesn`t seem to help move the group forward is common and may happen quite often. One way to resolve this problem, or at least to have a hedge against that, is to have the group work through a process where team members establish group project rules together.

Once those are developed, they provide a container which defines the boundaries around which the team is going to operate.

To be effective ground rules must be clear, consistent, agreed-to and followed. There are a couple of factors that should be taken into account when establishing ground rules:

  • Project duration. It’s obvious that ground rules are important for any project regardless of its duration. But for long-term projects the list of rules may be more flexible, because there will be opportunities to review the rules. On the contrary, short-term projects should have more clear and strict rules, because the cost of a mistake in such projects is higher.
  • Team location. Location of the team is another essential thing in defining ground rules. Usually remote or distributed teams require additional ground rules comparing to a stationary team.
  • Team members experience. You should also take into account how much team working experience each member of the team has. A lot of communication and collaboration norms are obvious for those who have quite a large experience of working in a team, so you may not dive deep into details. But if you have a couple of juniors in your team, you should definitely clarify all expectations in detail.
  • Team ethnicity. If you have a team that consists of people of different cultures, you have to consider the ethnicity of the team members and add some ground rules for effective multicultural collaboration.

How to establish ground rules

The first thing we should avoid when establishing ground rules for effective teams is allowing a manager or a facilitator just give the ground rules to the group. The team has to come up with them on their own. A facilitator definitely can guide the group by suggesting the certain ground rules and ask them if the rules might be important enough to become theirs. But let the group come up with their own rules, addressing those kinds of behavior that they find frustrating.

Before the meeting on establishing team ground rules it may be helpful to define in advance those topics that you want to cover at this meeting. For example, they may be attendance and participation team activities, fulfilling responsibilities and commitments, communicating with one another, resolving conflicts within the team, etc.

An hour or two hour meeting on establishing team ground rules is usually enough for a traditional scrum team up to 10 people. You may use either physical or virtual board to write down all ideas at first. And then, if a disagreement on some items takes place, you may vote for them with hands up.

You may use also another more engaging way to define ground rules. Before the meeting give all the participants a set of sticky notes and let them write down 3-5 ground rules they consider the most important. After that place all the sticky notes on the board, eliminate duplicates and let the team members vote with putting a plus sign (or some other sign) on the items they support. Sticky notes that will get more than 50% of the votes can be considered qualified to your ground rules agreement.

To facilitate the meeting on ground rules you may also divide the board into two parts – on the left part you will place items that are related to the actions and behavior which are welcomed, and on the right part there will be the items that are related to unacceptable actions and behavior. See an example of such a board (click on the image below to enlarge it).

Team Ground Rules Example

You may definitely invent and use your own method of setting ground rules for teams. However, it is very important to review ground rules from time to time, add or drop some group norms as needed. Over time the certain type of behavior or circumstances may encourage team to create a new rule. On the other hand, in the course of time some rules may become irrelevant, so they can be dropped.

Most common ground rules.

When it comes to ground rules there is no a silver bullet or some pre-defined rules that work for any team. Moreover, it is very important to set up the specific ground rules for your particular project and involve as many team members in this process as possible. People who create ground rules feel more responsible for following them.

Just for the sake of example I will give here a couple of common ground rules which can work for any team.

  • Communicate openly and honestly. Trust is one of the basic conditions for team and project success.
  • Be patient and tolerant. Every voice deserves to be heard, even if people don’t initially agree with the point of view being expressed. Accept the fact that people may solve problems differently, so value the opinion of others as well as your own.
  • Share all the relevant information with your team members. If team members don’t share their information, it can lead to incorrect decisions. Even worse, if it’s revealed that someone has withheld the information, it can cause serious problems.
  • Be involved in all group activities (meetings, for instance). Group work is based on multiple perspectives. Don`t hold back from putting forward your point of view.
  • Keep commitments and schedules. The team member to whom you have given a commitment relies on you and it`s quite possible that his work depends on the result of you work. If you don`t keep the commitment, you may put the whole project at risk.

I hope this ground rules template can help you to give a start to your ground rules discussion.

Ground rules for remote teams

When your team is spread between different locations, it definitely affects your communication and collaboration and adds some extra items to your ground rules agreement.
One of the most important differences is related to telecommuting as the main way of communication. This peculiarity may result in such ground rules as commitment to check all telecommuting tools and devices before the meetings or muting microphones during the meeting to avoid a side noise.

Another issue with remote teams is time zone differences. It may result in some additional ground rules limitations regarding the team meetings schedule and some norms related to work hand-over.

Wrapping Up

I hope now you can see all the values of establishing team ground rules for your project and will practice them with your teams. These agreements really help manage group dynamics and regulate how the team operates. Teams that don`t set ground rules from the start almost always fight an uphill battle to coordinate project work. However, the teams that have got pre-defined agreements are usually successful and high-performing.

Please, share in comments whether you use ground rules in your team or not. What difficulties have you faced when establishing team agreements? Maybe, you can share how your team ground rules have come to your rescue.

And if you`re interested in getting more information on the topic, I can suggest you to read this brochure by Roger Schwarz – Ground Rules for Effective Groups.


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