Your team has norms. Do you know what they are? More importantly, are they helpful?

Norms reduce ‘friction’ in business and social settings by allowing people to know what to expect from each other, without constantly needing to re-negotiate those expectations. They are the ‘rules of the road’, both written and unwritten. I propose that norms can be powerful tools to help a team achieve high performance, but you’re far more likely to realize this benefit if you approach the creation of norms as a deliberate act.

Norm: a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group

Not all norms are well considered or even consciously adopted. For example a sneeze usually elicits a response of “Bless you” (or “Gesundheit” where I grew up). Most people I talk to adhere to this ancient social norm, but do it as a reflex without understanding why. This demonstrates how norms can be powerful drivers of behavior. Our task is to properly harness the power of norms for the benefit of the team.

Norms are by definition shared behaviors or expectation of behavior by all or a significant portion of the team. If they’re not shared, they may be aspirational, a behavior the team has agreed to adopt but has not yet mastered or learned to hold each other accountable for.

Tuckman’s Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing framework is commonly used to discuss the process of group development. I’d like to suggest, as illustrated via the following graphic, that:

  • Every team goes through the forming-storming-norming-performing process, and achieves at least a baseline level of performance
  • High levels of performance require work by the team, and the work relates to making Norming an iterative process focused on continuous improvement

Examples of team norms can include:

  • Communication practices (direct vs. indirect, how remote meeting participants are included, etc.)
  • Decision making (consensus vs. hierarchical)
  • Accountability (individual vs. group)
  • Handling failure (opportunity for blame vs. learning)
  • Conflict resolution (passive? respectful? comfortable calling B.S.?)
  • Software development practices (e.g. size and frequency of commits, code review practices)

Norms will develop in all of these areas and more, regardless of whether the team is conscious of it or not. Also, these norms can be constructive, destructive, or something in-between. The biggest variable is whether the team decides to make this a deliberate process.

Every team will develop norms over time. The question is whether or not those norms are intentional or even beneficial.

On my latest project, a greenfield software development effort, we brought together a group of individuals most of whom had not worked together before. Individuals had preferences and learned behaviors based on past experience, but no shared norms. We took the opportunity to engage as a team in answering the following questions:

  • What do we want our software development philosophy to be? What practices will we adopt to reflect that?
  • What are our team values? How do we want to be with each other?

Through this process we adhered to what became our first team principle:

Be Intentional: Know what we want to accomplish, and how the actions we are taking align with that vision.

The end result of this group process was a request for every team member to adopt many behaviors which were new to them. In my experience the pull to reflex back to prior, learned behaviors is very strong and this team certainly experienced that. It took time, but we depended on trust and a willingness to hold each other accountable in order to transition from aspirational to true team norms.

We subsequently established several additional team principles that guide our decision making, such as:

  • Build quality into the process
  • Focus on team results
  • Differentiate high value activities, and invest more in those
  • Avoid over-investing in things that are likely to change
  • Drive innovation and continuous improvement through introspection, empathy, and candor
  • Better focus, as a team and as individuals, leads to higher quality and productivity

Each of these team principles has one or more practices associated with it. Taken together, these define our team norms.

It is important to note that norms are subject to change. It is essential for the entire team to adhere to the norm to realize any value, but just because the team agreed to try something doesn’t guarantee that it will prove to be the right choice in the long run. While our team has found that our principles have been durable, some practices have proven to be aspirational norms which have been discarded. The team must be open to re-negotiating norms in the spirit of continuous improvement. In fact, I’d argue that if the team isn’t discarding norms every so often they aren’t experimenting enough.

My experience is that the process of intentionally defining norms as a team created trust within the team and improved engagement. For our team, it also led to the team feeling empowered to become self-managing. After some months of work with an agile consultant, the team now takes turns facilitating all of our agile ceremonies and has expressed a desire to remain in control of their process.

Summary: What has worked for us, and might work for you:

  • Engage the entire team in the process. Ask vs. tell.
  • Agree on ways of working that are important to the team. Not everything requires a norm.
  • Start small. Defining and adopting norms takes work, and some intentional norms are better than none. Use small victories to build momentum.
  • Effective retrospectives are essential at proposing new norms, and eliminating ineffective ones.
  • Practice holding each other accountable. This requires psychological safety, and along with a willingness to iterate is the key to continuous improvement.

Norms happen. It’s up to you whether that is a random or intentional process.

Interested in making great software, and particularly in how to make teams more effective

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