What's the Deal With Working Agreements? ⁉️

Jul 28, 2023 2:00 pm

Happy Friday,

It's been a while! I'm hard at work launching my other business venture, Reko Day. Check it out if you have a minute, and let me know what you think.

Someone in a Slack I'm in asked for resources on establishing working agreements. Strangely enough, I never wrote on this subject, so I thought I'd start with an email.

Working agreements are beneficial and far too often overlooked. In essence, working agreements document the rules or guidelines of a thing. One of the best places to start using them is in meetings, and another extremely useful one is in building or resetting teams.

I'll start with their application in meetings and how I tend to facilitate their creation. If you've ever felt unsure in a meeting about if or how you should speak up, or frustrated that people are way too far down the rabbit hole of a topic, or that someone has hi-jacked the meeting or any of the things that happened in just about every meeting you're in?


Working agreements establish the rules of the room that allow the folks in the meeting to address all those issues.

If this is done digitally, I start with a large blank easel post-it or white canvas, and write "Working Agreements" on them. I then write "Low-tech" and "ELMO" on the page in large letters so everyone can see.

I then explain what we're about to do saying something like this:

"I've found meetings go a lot smoother and accomplish their purpose when working agreements exist. An excellent way to think of these working agreements is the rules we all agree to hold in place because it makes our meeting more productive. I've started with two to get us started. We'll suggest a working agreement and have a quick discussion, and if we agree it is useful, I'll write it up here.

Once we're done, it's really up to you to enforce these working agreements, which can be as simple as saying the agreement itself as a gentle reminder. I will also help for the next few minutes by mentioning them as I notice."

I then explain the two items I put up there. Low-tech is about keeping distractions from devices to a minimum; if you have to deal with something, leave the room and return when ready. ELMO stands for "Enough, let's move on." It's a signal we use when a topic is exhausted so that we don't dwell on conversations that aren't useful at the moment.

From here, things progress as I described, with folks suggesting things, and we have a short discussion around what everyone thinks it means and then vote informally. Some things you'll hear with high regularity are items around listening and respect.

Now, moving on to higher-stakes working agreements, let's talk about how to use them in team creating or resetting. The working agreements here are larger and more comprehensive. For this, I tend to split working agreements into a few categories. One category is about communication, another is about how to handle conflict, and another is a broader one that the team observes daily. I don't start with any items in any of these categories, and before I facilitate this, I make sure I can explain what I'm getting at with these categories so that it is productive.

Otherwise, it works the exact same, someone suggests something, we discuss it so we all know what it means, and then after an informal vote, it is added.

Now, in general, I tend to advocate the creation of minimum agreements that we can build on and alter. Groups tend to get stuck if they feel they're having to be comprehensive. We adjust them at any point, but retrospectives are a natural fit.

This email has focused a lot on the facilitation side of working agreements instead of making a case that you need them. So let me say quite simply, you need them. Teams are stronger when they know how they are to conduct themselves, and meetings are smoother when everyone knows what is expected. The belief is that agreements aren't needed because "Everyone here is a professional" is holding everyone back.

I'd love to hear any story you have about meetings you think would've been better with working agreements, or times they helped, or times they didn't!