From Chernobyl to Fyre Festival, every man-made disaster of human history begins with poor teamwork and a lack of communication. Failing to establish objectives, poor leadership, twisted priorities - there are countless origins for epic failure, but there’s a common denominator. At some point, any semblance of teamwork is extinguished.
A team charter document is the best tool for fending off potential collapse of a team. This document can be applied for multiple scenarios:
The framework for an organization, such as a startup or team within a corporation.
Team project for college students
Opening a second location (small business or restaurant)
New client kickoff
New project kickoff
Engineering projects (such as breakout sprint within a larger organization)
Team charters will differ based on the situation. There will always be unique elements but the core elements remain the same.
Core Components of a Team Charter
Background & Context - Actionable guidance is impossible without background and context. This section establishes the purpose of the specific team charter you’re working on. It answers the question of, “What?” It could include simple outline the document contents.
Objective - This section answers the question of, “Why?” Some prefer to use, “Mission & Vision” or some variation. Use this to explain why the team should care about this document. The main goal of the project or team should be included. It’s also appropriate to list the success metrics for the project, such as key performance indicators (KPIs), a financial target or audience-related goal. Another benefit of the objective section is to eliminate the possibility of scope creep, when a team begins working on deliverables outside of the project guidelines. Scope creep is a surefire way to miss deadlines and increase team confusion.
Roles & Responsibilities - The next question to answer is, “Who?” Many teams and businesses operate with a misunderstanding of who does what. This section presents direction that is more useful than titles for LinkedIn profiles. For instance, team members with the title of “Sr. Engineer” are more effective within the team dynamic by focusing on different tasks. For instance, one group handles ops work (supporting the system, bugs, downtime) while the other focuses on development work (new features). The roles and responsibilities section provides clear direction for the team and the role of management. Will they be present in daily standups or weekly meetings? Is someone authorized to make managerial decisions if they’re away? These answers should be clarified with a series of FAQ’s and hypothetical but realistic scenarios.
Team Operations - The next two sections answer the question of, “How?” Team operations might be referred to as Checks, Balances, and Reviews, Team Member Authority, or Team Assessment and Evaluations. Whatever name you decide, this section explains how the team will conduct their business. This could include a meeting schedule, sprint schedules, deadlines, milestones, service-level agreements (SLAs), collaboration expectations, etc.
Everything about what the team creates should be explained. This included processes for how and when artifacts are created, and where they are stored. For example, a sales team might produce meeting notes after sales calls that are stored in Salesforce. The next associate reaching out to that customer would review notes prior to the call.
It’s important to separate this section from roles and responsibilities to demonstrate the importance of teamwork and team unity. It serves as an accountability tool for teams and management.
Budget, Resources and Available Support - A misunderstanding of budget and resources is an easy way to crush team morale. At this point, team members understand what they have to do and how, but need to understand what they’ll be working with. For instance, will a marketing team get a budget for design work or will they have to use free resources? This section is useful for providing support avenues if team members are absent or fall behind. Clearly stating the budget provides accountability for managers. They are tasked with keeping the budget consistent instead of pulling resources during the course of a project to serve a wider-scale budget need.
Final Consensus - No team charter is complete without a final section of unified approval and team consensus. The word ‘team’ is a crucial aspect of a team charter that should not be overlooked. This document is not a delegation of duties. It’s meant to bring a team together before they begin a project or start working at a new company. Many teams include a period of “negotiation” during this section, which allows team members to share their feedback and request any changes up front. The final step of any team charter is to have everyone involved sign off to confirm consensus. This could be with written or digital signatures. Whatever the method, every team member must confirm their unconditional approval. With that said, there’s no reason for this to be a rigid process. The information and procedures will naturally evolve over time, but this must be done in an organized and transparent fashion.
Team Charter: Principles in Action
A team charter isn’t limited to any industry or purpose. The same or similar has been applied throughout history when communication and teamwork is paramount. Consider these examples from an elite military unit and a software behemoth.
United States Navy SEALs
Communication and teamwork is a life and death matter for military personnel. Yet commanders face similar circumstances as business leaders when they prepare for a mission. Each commander creates a presentation of how his team will operate, and presents it to senior officers.
This was largely done with flashy PowerPoint presentations filled with buzzwords. Leif Babin and Jocko Willink met in the mid 2000’s and debuted a new strategy. They focused on directions that are easy to follow and easy to understand, opposed to being impressive for senior officers. They developed a comprehensive checklist which resembles the team charter core components.
Analyze the mission. Understand the intent of everyone involved, and the endstate (the goal). State your own intent and endstate for the specific mission.
Identify personnel, assets, resources, and time available.
Decentralize the planning process. Empower leaders within the team.
Determine a specific course of action (prioritizing simplicity).
Plan for likely contingencies throughout the operation.
Mitigate controllable risks (as much as possible).
Demonstrate leadership by delegating portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders.
Constantly check and question the plan as information emerges.
Ask questions, encourage discussion and team interaction to promote comprehension.
Conduct a post-operational debrief after execution. Implement lessons learned going forward.
This strategy was shared by Babin and Willink in their #1 New York Times bestseller, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.” The pair launched their consulting firm, Echelon Front, in 2011. They provide workshops, training and presentations for business leaders looking to improve team operations.
Google’s People Operations Team conducted interviews and analyzed data to identify the five keys to a successful Google team. The results pair well with team charter ideals, and provide further insights for team charter creation.
After 200+ interviews, and analysis of 250 attributes within 180+ active Google teams - they came up with the following:
Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?
All of these elements demonstrate the importance of team buy-in and cohesion, another reason why the negotiation and consensus aspect of a team charter is so important. The data created a new routine at Google, where teams conduct a daily 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics to ensure good standing.
A team charter is one of dozens of documents that can fortify the effectiveness and morale of your team. Here’s inspiration for your next leg of document creation.