Good Agile teams are self- organising where all ideas matter, everyone contributes and everyone is heard!
For becoming a high-performing and self-organised team, a lot depends on how team members work together and how good of a shared understanding they share. In complex Agile working environments, it is not easy to rely only on technical skills and attention should be paid on creating cohesion. This is where social contract comes into picture.
A social contract (also known as working agreement) allows Agile teams to define and agree on the acceptable and non-negotiable behaviours.
In this post, we’ll look at following points:
- What is a social contract or a working agreement?
- Why do you need a social contract?
- Who creates the Social contract?
- How and when to create a Social contract?
What is a social contract or a working agreement
A social contract is not a legally binding agreement. Instead, it’s a socially binding one. What that means is that each person in a team agrees and adheres to certain behaviours that the team mutually creates. Social contracts are unique to a team because each team has people with different personalities, idiosyncrasies and objectives.
Below is an example of a social contract:
You can also add other, more specific topics in your social contract. One of our contracts included these:
- No open laptops in meetings
- Meetings are not scheduled between 3-5 PM
- No mobile phone in meetings or team discussions
- Update cards daily on the wall (later we edited that to include MS Teams and Jira)
An important point to note is that social contracts should not be created and used as a box ticking exercise. Instead, they should be adhered to and revisited as often as required. If you’re a physically co-located team, place the agreement somewhere where it is visible to everyone. If you’re all working remotely, make it a part of your shared area where it is easily accessible and visible.
Why do you need a social contract
Long time ago, we had a developer in our team who used to disappear during the mid-day when most of the teams were on lunch break and used to return after nearly an hour and half. Not only that, he used to leave early to pick-up his child from the day care centre. It was a concern for most because there was enough dependency on this developer and his unavailability was affecting others.
What would you do if you were being affected in this team?
Our team decided to use the social contract to remind everyone of their commitments. In one informal meeting (it’s important to note that such discussions are more effective when not done in a formal setting), while chatting with each other team members asked him about this developer’s long breaks. It turned out that he was utilising his lunch break for visiting a gym and wasn’t aware that others were being impacted by his absence.
Because of a social contract where all were free to respectfully share their views, we were able to avoid what could be a difficult discussion.
What I have experienced is that social contracts help build psychological safety, openness, shared understanding, trust, congruence and a sense of accountability.
Who creates a Social contract?
Many teams have their social contracts created by someone in the management or the human resource (I guess calling it People & Culture is better) teams. Well, that’s not how a team contract should be created.
For a team to become self-organising in a real sense, it is important that they define their own ways of working and guidelines. When the team creates their own standards, they will own it and will be committed to it. Creating and owning something collectively also helps teams establish better relationships with others.
How and when to create a Social contract?
A team should create a social contract when it is forming. However, many teams constantly grow and there may not be a single, common beginning for all team members. In that case, the core team or the group of people who join the team in the beginning should create a social contract. This core team should also ensure that every time a new team member joins them, they are given a walkthrough of this contract by other team members. They should also feel safe in reviewing and contributing to this contract. If that happens, the social contract will work in favour of the team.
Tips on how to create a social contract:
- Get together as a team. If teams are located remotely, ensure people are able to turn their videos on. For such an important discussion, it is vital if team members can see each other.
- Collectively choose someone who can facilitate the discussion. Social contract discussion can generate debates and having a good facilitator will help everyone stay on track. A facilitator will also help in ensuring that all get a chance to speak up. The facilitator does not have to be a delivery leader, a scrum master or a coach.
- You may ask each team member to write what they expect from everyone in the team
- If the team is located remotely, use a tool like Whiteboard Fox or Miro to collect ideas.
- As a team, decide what common behaviours the team accepts as a minimum.
- Agree on what are non-negotiable behaviors.
Social contracts are mutual agreements and they should be enforced by the team. They are not pretty posters that teams use to appear Agile. These agreements are to build trust and to reinforce the feeling that a team is empowered and is in control. They also show that the team does not need to be controlled or commanded by someone in the organisational hierarchy.
It is also worth noting that these agreements do not replace organisational policies. Those policies are the boundaries within which teams function. Instead, working agreements are there to enhance the cultural aspects of an entity.
Do you have a social contract with your team? What is your experience from using it?
If you are curious about the term Social contract and where it came from, a good starting point is Wikipedia. It is quite interesting too.
Although not directly related to Agile delivery, the text on Wikipedia speaks about the social contract theory or model as defined in moral and political philosophy. One can argue that the statement below indirectly applies to how we behave in teams:
“Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.”
To learn more about the Social Contract Theory, visit these links: