6 Core Components of a Team Charter Document

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)

  • Military operation

  • 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 

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. 

The True Cost of Employee Turnover: Tribal Knowledge Loss

Gallup data shows 60% of millennials are open to new job opportunities, which is 15% more than other generations.

Imagine this scenario. You run a business. Information about processes, sensitive information and department manuals sporadically vanishes. Employees look for answers, but they’re not even sure what went missing.

It sounds like a hack, data breach, or catastrophic IT failure. But this situation is far more common and just as damaging.

It’s the impact of employees leaving. Turnover.

And without a system of proper documentation, training, succession planning and onboarding - the resulting loss of tribal knowledge can do long-term damage to any small business or large corporation.

Here’s why the loss of tribal knowledge is so pervasive, and how the available solutions that use technology and methodology fall short. 

The Bane of Our Existence

It’s hard to wrap this issue with a financial figure or conduct a study. But some studies have looked at the cost of ineffective knowledge systems. One approach for this is to calculate what it costs when employees must spend time looking for answers they need. International Data Corp. (IDC) did this and estimated the average enterprise wastes $2.5 to $3.5 million per year due to ineffective knowledge systems. They based this on the cost of employing 1,000 workers who search for nonexistent information, fail to find existing information, or recreate information that can’t be found. The same report estimated the opportunity cost for this spectacular misuse of time, noting the total would cost roughly $300,000 per week, equivalent to the annual salary of a top-end Wall Street trader. 

Instead of estimations, let’s review how prevalent the problem is. The knowledge loss issue is unbiased when it comes to industry, company size and existing systems. 

Sales - Whenever the top salesperson leaves a company, a portion of sustained company revenue leaves with them. There’s no incentive for sales reps to mentor others or document their success strategies. A drop in sales will occur until other reps (new or existing) decode the formula. 

Tech - Developers have a deep understanding of how a product or business works so their departure is that much more worrying. This creates serious delays and stumbles as everyone picks up the pieces. When Anthony Levandowski was fired from Google’s self-driving car team only to launch a similar project at Uber, an IP lawsuit ensued which is the legal side of knowledge loss and protection. 

Restaurants - Employee turnover is the biggest problem for restaurants, with the National Restaurant Industry reporting a 73% turnover rate for all employees in 2017. Service industry managers are lucky to get exit interviews, let alone a thorough transfer of knowledge.   

Federal Government - The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) cited retaining knowledge as their top priority in their 2018 federal workforce report. They cite the need for a succession plan to utilize a multi-generational pipeline (but fail to provide actionable guidance).

Security & Exchange Commission - The Inspector General’s office published a report about the SEC in 2018 which addressed their challenges with human capital management. Succession plans, and issues relating to competency and skills gaps were covered. All of which relate to institutional knowledge retention. 

Emergency Medical Services - The Journal of Emergency Medical Services cited several examples of knowledge loss in police, fire and EMT departments. The journal estimates 20 years of knowledge is lost when a leadership position is forced to resign because of an intolerable workload. It takes years for  departments to recover. 

Brain Drain and Job Hopping

Knowledge loss has become a trending issue because of two factors. The baby boomer generation is approaching mass retirement, and the millennial generation has a different mindset on the ideal career path. 

Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are said to be retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day until 2030. This has social and economic implications, notably the amount of jobs opening up without information being properly transferred. More than 40% of baby boomers have worked for the same company for at least 20 consecutive years. The goal for baby boomers is job retention and pension collection. Meanwhile millennials have found the best way to elevate a career path is to job hop instead of waiting for a promotion. 

Companies have began addressing this pending retirement issue by offering “phased” retirements, so retirees work part-time as they transition out of the company. However, this can be troublesome if part-time hours and lower salary factor into pension plans, healthcare, social security, benefits or profit-sharing. Additionally, many retirees won’t even get a phased retirement opportunity as the idea has fizzled in recent years. A 2019 retirement survey by Transamerica found the majority of employers are not offering flexible schedules (20%), full-time to part-time capability (19%), or a switch to a less demanding position (15%). 

Firms have started to prioritize flexible work policies, employee wellness and professional development programs to address the job hopping issue. Still, Gallup data shows 60% of millennials are open to new job opportunities, which is 15% more than other generations. 

The Knowledge Base Solution (Technology)

If you search for an answer to this problem, the common suggestion sounds perfect - create a knowledge base. A system for saving information, which makes things easy to find and is organized so it becomes a collective system of record for the entire business. This addresses the issue but introduces new challenges. First, what does a knowledge base mean to you? There are several interpretations and several problems with each: 

  • Storage - Tools like Google Drive and Dropbox are used to store documents, files and important information. 

    • Problem(s): These tools are great but can suffer from poor searchability and lack of standards for what to save and where.  

  • Project Management - Many employees expect to find what they need within their project management software. The major project management tools promote features like “Docs & Files” which allow document sharing and are used for storage and discovery. 

    • Problem(s): Some project management tools claim to be knowledge bases, others have built separate knowledge base tools (Atlassian with Asana and Confluence). This demonstrates the lack of clarity in these solutions, they are focused on collaboration with knowledge base capability as a toss-in afterthought. 

  • Chat & Email - Another group of employees will expect to find what they need in chat apps, or email. Chat tools have built integrations with storage tools to help with this, but relying on any chat tool for is not ideal. 

    • Problem(s): They’re designed for collaboration and communication, not information storage or retrieval. Workers often search for something specific in chat or email history only to not find it or realize it wasn’t documented.

  • All-In-One Tools - Certain tools from the categories above claim to be all-in-one solutions, they claim to immediately replace other systems already in place. This would be ideal but in practice it doesn’t work that way. 

    • Problem(s): For instance, in large enterprises there are so many teams with varying needs it’s unlikely there can be one tool to rule them all. Additionally, going all-in on an all-in-one tool fails to address management and employee morale issues that could be the real cause of the dysfunction and “we have too many tools” complaints. 

  • Wikis - Wiki tools make a lot sense for knowledge base purposes. After all, the Wikipedia we all know and love is an encyclopedia for everything. A business version of Wikipedia seems like it would solve knowledge loss issues. 

90-9-1 (1).png

90-9-1 Principle

Problem(s): Most wiki tools don’t prioritize great design so they’re prone to low usage. They’re also prone to a social phenomenon called the "90–9–1" principle. This means 1% of users create content, 9% of users edit/modify content while the remaining 90% solely view content. It’s easy to get team members to use a wiki tool to find information, but to get them to write and create information as needed is far more difficult.

Further, all of the tools above suffer from inconsistent workflows and the lack of knowledge discovery. Different teams have natural differences with how they implement and operate software. There’s a growing sector of workflow and process management vendors because of this issue. 

It’s also difficult to use these tools to find answers when teams are not sure of what they’re looking for. One of the most common knowledge base tools, Microsoft’s Sharepoint, has a list of possible issues that prevent search effectiveness. These include permission, indexing and content approval settings, view filtering, missing metadata and more. 

 The Writing Culture Solution (Methodology)

We know Google and Facebook have addressed knowledge loss related to turnover and other issues by creating campus-style offices where employees never have to leave. This is an impractical tactic for any non tech giant. The most relevant and practical method is to install a system of writing, reading and sharing. Amazon and their CEO, Jeff Bezos, is an excellent example of this. The billionaire completely overhauled meetings, outlawed PowerPoints and preserved information. 

The Amazon system set a rule that a long-form document must be written for any initiative, project, process and any business venture. Ask any former Amazonian (even the co-founder of Topple, also a Jeff) and they’ll say this has a huge impact on how Amazon is able to roll out thousands of product lines each year. And compete in so many different spaces beyond e-commerce. 

So, how do you go about applying this solution? There’s nothing built-in to existing software that can help with overhauling how your team communicates. But we know successful and innovative companies have created a writing culture. No matter the size of your organization or your industry, you should be able to apply this method for success with software. That’s why we created Topple, to solve your tribal knowledge problem.