Why It Matters
"Establishing a working agreement compels us to ask several important questions: What are our roles and responsibilities? What will this project look like in practice? What do we do when the going gets tough?"
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Why Having a Working Agreement Is Better than Being Lucky

By Marianne McPherson | Wednesday, April 12, 2023
Why Having a Working Agreement Is Better than Being Lucky Photo by Susann Schuster | Unsplash | The maneki-neko is a Japanese figurine believed to bring good luck to the owner.

When people work well together, it can be easy to assume that this is simply a matter of luck or team chemistry. Luck or chemistry may be part of it, but there are many ways to build thriving team relationships. One helpful tool is called a working agreement, and improvement coaches use it to help teams set themselves up for success.

At its core, a working agreement can be like a team contract. It is a document that clearly sets forth how we, as a team, will achieve our shared goals. Establishing a working agreement compels us to ask several important questions: What are our roles and responsibilities? What will this project look like in practice? What do we do when the going gets tough?

This last question is key. There will almost always come a time when team members have different views or face a disagreement. The strength of a team is not determined by an absence of conflict but, rather, how the team works through conflict when it does arise. It is essential to establish a shared understanding upfront of how to address disagreements while continuing to have a strong and productive working relationship. This helps us remember — despite any difficulties we experience — that our work is in service of a goal that the team believes in and that conflict is a normal part of working to address complex challenges.

Regularly revisiting our working agreement — a few times a year or when there is a team transition, for example — provides a structure to help us to continue asking important questions: Are we getting this right? Are there things in our agreement we should adjust? Do all the roles and responsibilities still make sense?

Working agreements will often have both general principles and details that bring those principles to life. The document is most helpful when it is specific so people can understand what it means for their day-to-day activities. It can be on virtual or real paper or whatever kind of documentation is most easily and equitably accessible to everyone. A working agreement can include an entire team or be between an improvement coach and a team leader or between an improvement coach and everyone on the team.

The Benefits of a Working Agreement and the Risks of Not Having One

Just the other day, one of my teams was talking about how we want to work together. We considered some questions as a group: What is our experience doing this work every day? What would it look like to be a “dream team”? If we work as a dream team, what will our work look like in the end? In this discussion, we each talked about our own unique “superpowers.” We then talked about the superpowers in others that bring out the best in us. We also discussed the things that get under our skin or get in the way of our team thriving.

Teams are made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, strengths, and challenges. Without open discussions, dynamics can come into the virtual or real room and into our work that make it difficult for us to attain the important goals we set out to achieve together. Misunderstandings and miscommunication — as well as talking “around” rather than directly addressing issues — can sap the joy and meaning from our work. They can waste the time, will, energy, and passion of hardworking people.

Using a Working Agreement to Make Work More Equitable

I joined IHI to work on an initiative to advance health, well-being, and equity where one of our “working agreements” (called touchstones for collaboration) said, “Make the way we work together an example of what is possible.” As I continue to walk my own anti-racism and equity journey as a White woman born and raised in the Northeast, working as a senior director at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), I have learned that it is essential to make the implicit explicit. It is important to surface the assumptions we might hold that can be blind spots.

A working agreement can seem like a very mundane thing, but the process of creating it and revisiting it can democratize our work and allow the sharing of power across our team members. Having times when anyone on a team can stop the line and call the question helps us be explicit about where power lives, who is holding it, and who is invited to be around the table as we decide how we want to do our work. Having a working agreement can bring a more equitable approach to how we interact as a team and center equity in all we do.

Marianne McPherson, PhD, is an IHI Senior Director and Improvement Advisor. 

You may also be interested in:

How to Stay on Course with Your Improvement Work

IHI Quality Improvement Essentials Toolkit

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