Podcast Ep. 4: Setting Up Working Agreements with Christy Erbeck

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Episode Description:

In today’s episode of Agile Coaches’ Corner, host Dan Neumann joins AgileThought colleague and Principal Transformation Consultant, Christy Erbeck, to discuss working agreements.

Christy Erbeck is a client-focused executive dedicated to leading strategic change. She has broad domestic and international experience in corporate strategy, change management, program management and leadership communications. As an Industrial & Organizational Psychologist, Christy is a compassionate and courageous collaborator who is energized by coaching and developing others and aiding organizations in transformation. Her specialties include business agility and change management, Enterprise Asset Management (EAM), manufacturing, distribution and service organizations, creating customer and employee-focused strategies, innovation, and much more.

In today’s episode, Christy will explain the importance of having a working agreement, tips for setting up a working agreement with a new team, and how to rework a working agreement that has already been established.

Listen on Google Play Music


Key Takeaways

  • The importance of having a working agreement in place:
    • Helps teams work through problems they’re struggling with (such as core working hours, handling conflict and creating a safe working environment)
    • Helps teams come up with their definition of “normal”
    • Sets a clear path to a future they would like to see with the team
    • It gives people permission to show up fully to the event at-hand
  • Christy’s tips for setting up a work agreement with a new team:
    • Give people enough time to think through what they want to see in the working agreement
    • Eliminate and reduce anxiety by clearly illustrating the process for them
    • Set the stage that it is a safe space to bring their ideas
    • Utilize the facilitation technique, 1-2-4-All (linked below)
    • Boil it down to the core ideas and vet it against messy, tough scenarios
    • Allow the right amount of time to create the working agreement — it is not something that is meant to be rushed through
    • Humor is important — allow the space to be fun
  • Christy’s tips for reworking a working agreement that has already been established:
    • Establish what is and isn’t working in the working agreement
    • Figure out why it isn’t working and what the team wants to do differently
    • Ask questions: Is the working agreement serving us or are we serving the work agreement? Is it aligned with our values?


Mentioned in this Episode:


Like what you heard? Check out our podcast page for more episodes full of interesting discussions, agile insights, and helpful resources.



Intro: [00:03] Welcome to Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought, the podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:20]  With me today is transformation consultant and fellow AgileThought colleague, Christy Erbeck and we’re going to be talking about working agreements.

Christy Erbeck: [00:28]  Hi Dan. Thanks for having me today.

Dan Neumann: [00:30]  Happy to. Thanks for taking the time. When we are working with teams, a lot of times things don’t necessarily go the way people would expect and sometimes you’ve alluded to asking do they have a working agreement in place and I’m curious if you could explain why that question is often one of the ones who ask?

Christy Erbeck: [00:52]  Well, when I first started down this path to agility personally and discovered working agreements, it was a wonderful aha moment and I created a working agreement with the team that I had at the time and found that it really helped us work through problems that we were struggling with. Everything from core working hours to how we were going to handle conflict to how would we celebrate and what was important for us to create a safe environment for us as a team to do the best work possible.

Dan Neumann: [01:29]  Yeah, you mentioned some things that a lot of teams run into right now. We have core working hours, a lot of agile teams are distributed, a lot of them in big cities. There are commutes to deal with and people maybe pick one side or the other of a rush hour to, to work on. How, if we want to form a working agreement, then maybe what are some important elements that would go into that that you see?

Christy Erbeck: [01:57]  When we first start working with a team, especially if this is a new team, uh, one of the benefits of creating a working agreement is helping them come up with their definition of normal. And what I mean by that is how it just gives them a place to put things out on the table of how things have worked well in teams that they’ve been on in the past and maybe right some wrongs also from the past. And then set a path to a future that they like to see with this team. And so things that I ask, um, are around what do we need as a team to feel safe. And so sometimes teams will answer me and say, well Vegas Baby, you know what we say? You know what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, that whole concept and so we’ll take that to the point of, well, when we’re in a certain environment, if we say Vegas baby, then everybody understands that that means that this conversation is staying within the team and we’re not going to talk about it outside of the team. Does that make sense?

Dan Neumann: [03:19]  It does. Although when you said Vegas Baby, I was picturing it as a small child that came from Vegas. I was like, you can’t keep them a secret. But then I, then I did realize where you were actually going. Yeah, so what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, baby. You did talk about sharing things that worked well in sharing things that went wrong and I’ve had a team where we had this one particular individual who was all about documentation. We had to document, we had to document, we have the other naysayer of agile or agile wasn’t going to work. And when we dug in a little bit, we learned that the documentation person happened to have a really strong regulatory background. And the guy who said agile wasn’t going to work was from a background where what they were doing just ignored quality engineering practices. So they were writing garbage code and yeah, I would hate agile too if it wasn’t working because we were writing garbage code. And so that can and then in those experiences, and I’m sure you have a bunch as well, can inform the working agreement, how much documentation, what do we do about code coverage and unit testing and evolutionary architecture. And those things come to mind.

Christy Erbeck: [04:27]  Absolutely. A working agreement can cover our technical practices and our definition of done and, and our shared understanding of what we’re creating. And it’s a wonderful way to bring a team together as part of our teaming activities when a team is coming together for the first time. Um, but it’s also something that allows us to, it, it becomes a standalone, almost like this neutral third party that we can use and reference to when things get tough and not blame any one person. So we keep it at that systems level in our conversations, which again creates safety within our teams. Um, and allows us to to speak to that working agreement that’s on the wall or in a, you know, a team site or something like that and just reminds people of what we’d agreed to. Now, it doesn’t mean that that set in stone and can’t be changed. Absolutely. As the team evolves, I would expect that the working agreement is revisited and evolves as well. Um, but, but just looking at, and even if you tie back to modern agile, uh, those four quadrants that, um, Josh Kerievsky talks about, make safety a prerequisite, make people awesome, learn an experiment and continuously deliver value. There are components that talk to the technical side of our work. They talked to the emotional side of our work and really just help a team set the stage for greater success than they would without it. Does that make sense?

Dan Neumann: [06:08]  It does. And I was wondering, have you, have you used those four quadrants explicitly? What do you, would you be doing that with the new team, let’s say, to facilitate that? I know a lot of times we’ve had elements that would address the safety and making people awesome, but I personally haven’t used that as let’s say, the framework for creating a working agreement.

Christy Erbeck: [06:28]  I use it behind the scenes in my brain when I’m setting it up. I have yet to use it explicitly and probably will try that with the next team just because as we bring in modern agile more explicitly to our work, it helps as a reference point for people.

Dan Neumann: [06:49]  Okay, that’s cool and so we’ve got a new team. Let’s say we want to set up a working agreement. What tips might you have for going through that with a new team going through that activity?

Christy Erbeck: [07:06]  The first thing I would say is let people know that we’re going to do this as part of our teaming activities and to give them some time to think through what they would like to see or have within the working agreement. Um, I don’t like surprises necessarily. Uh, although my husband did surprise me for my 40th birthday and it was fabulous. You think about, I try to put myself in the position of the team member coming into this workshop and this may be their first workshop. This may be the first time that they’ve worked in “agile” way. So there’s a lot of newness here and I want to eliminate or reduce as much anxiety for those folks. So by letting them know this is something we’re going to do, please do think through what you’d like to see and I’ll give some examples. I have pictures of working agreements from other teams that I’ve shared or I’ll give them some words or some ideas to just plant the seed. Um, so one, let them know it’s coming. Two, in the room and in the space, set the stage that foundationally this is a safe place for them to bring their ideas and segment it out. So the first thing we’re going to do is brainstorm what could be here. And when I say brainstorm anything goes. There’s not a uh, we’re not editing at this point. We are just thinking through. And so in silence I’ll have them write each, each individually an idea per sticky so that those people that take time to process, um, have that opportunity so that people who might naturally, you know, shut something down, don’t have the opportunity to do that. Um, and so we start in silence, then we affinity map and we do all of the other things that we do in our agile facilitation relative to bringing a team together. And one of the greatest facilitation techniques that I learned actually at agile 2018 and have, I’ve used it naturally, I just didn’t know it had a name comes from liberatingstructures.com and it’s called one, two, four, all. And so that sequence allows people to work as individuals first. Then they pair up with somebody else. Then two pairs come together to create a, to create a quad. And then as a group, um, in total we discuss and it’s a wonderful way to bring together folks to begin that process.

Dan Neumann: [09:57]  Yup. One of the challenges I’ve seen is the first talker wins. They anchor that conversation. And that can happen in lots of places, especially with working agreements. Hey you, here’s what we should do. And then that puts everybody else in an awkward position of either going with it but not really agreeing, you know, so they agree, but they don’t support or you immediately start off with a conflict over what we should do. And I, I love the silent writing activity and that one, two, four, all structure is a nice way to, to kind of bring in gradually more and more perspectives on those.

Christy Erbeck: [10:30]  Yeah. And I learned that, um, agile 2018 this year in San Diego with Ellen Grove and Sue Johnston’s, um, workshop. Uh, the next thing that I like to do is once we’ve gotten those ideas and we’ve, we’ve really called it down to the core ideas, is to kind of vet that against, um, like if we throw a few things up there like Elmo enough, let’s move on. Or Vegas baby or, um, you know, things are going to get messy and it’s okay. Right? We talked through some scenarios of how might a working agreement help us get through these types of things, right?

Dan Neumann: [11:17]  It’s kind of like a dry run for when something, if somebody violates us, what do we do? Is that what you’re…?

Christy Erbeck: [11:25]  Right. So if, if, um, the, the messy one is fun because things get messy on a Scrum team or even in Kanban, in any team things get messy. And so it’s, it’s nice to give ourselves permission to be messy and then come back and be able to clean it up. But just to give ourselves the permission to be messy is, is important. Um, I think then the fourth component is allowing the right amount of time to create this working agreement. This is not something that should be rushed through, especially if you’re forming a team and that team is intended to be together for a long time when you’re doing a one or two day workshop. I still do a working agreement. It’s part of every agenda that I do regardless of the length of time, but it’s less important that we think about your working agreement than it is when we’re working with a team that’s intended to be together for a while.

Dan Neumann: [12:21]  Right. You alluded to to that, and I know it’s easy to go into the context of a Scrum team, but for trainings, how do we handle electronic devices? What do we do about people being on call, those, those types of things. So that’s a good point. It can make that a daylong or two-day long training go much more smoothly if we’ve handled our laptops out and open and partial attention. Is that okay or what do we need to do there?

Christy Erbeck: [12:44]  Yes. Yes. And it gives, again, it gives people permission to show up fully to the event at hand because if I have an emergency or I have something, my child is sick and I may get a call, that’s important to me and we want those people to know that that’s important to us as well because they’re humans and we want to invite their entire human being into the space.

Dan Neumann: [13:10]  Yeah, I like it. We’ve talked about a scenario with new teams and that brings to mind, so a lot of times as coaches or even just new people coming into a team, whether you’re a Scrum Master or new to a team, you’re coming into a situation where this isn’t present or it’s becoming apparent that the old working agreement maybe has been outlived or is no longer applying and it’s almost time to do a reset of some kind. Any tips for approaching that graciously or, or, or starting that conversation about, hey, this, you know, we’re not, we’re not okay any longer to things getting messy or maybe those working hours aren’t working for us anymore.

Christy Erbeck: [14:03]  Yeah. I say take a retrospective perspective on that. Literally what’s working with this working agreement? Why is it working? What’s not working? Why isn’t it working? What do we want to do differently? We own this working agreement. We are entirely accountable for the success or failure of this working agreement because it’s, it’s our working agreement as a team. So we own it. No, it’s not. Well, I said earlier, that’s this neutral third party. I meant that in the way that it’s something that we can look to, but it’s not something that should be held at arm’s length. A good working agreement is brought into and used on a regular basis within the team. So it’s something that is a living dynamic aspect of the team when done well.

Dan Neumann: [15:00]  Is there any cadence you would think of where they need to be revisited? Is it kind of like, Hey, let’s look at this quarterly, or maybe that’s part of the working agreement. How long do we put this in place? Monthly, quarterly, semiannually or is it just like, oh, this, it’s starting to feel weird?

Christy Erbeck: [15:14]  It’s more about how it feels. And is this serving us, right? We don’t, we don’t serve the working agreement. The working agreement should serve us. So is it, is it serving us? Is it supporting the team? Is it supporting all of the members of the team? Is it supporting our ability to get the work done in a way that makes people awesome, creates safety, support, safety? Is it aligned with our values? I know that might seem really esoteric because people, I, I’m sure people have different views of working agreements for whatever reason. There’s a lot of resonation for me with a working agreement, it just makes sense and creates really clear boundaries for how we should show up and be with each other.

Dan Neumann: [16:06]  Yeah. I think you touched on some of the human side of it and I was engaging with, with a team and I asked, you know, how did something feel? And one of the engineers said, what do you mean? How did it feel? Well, no, it wasn’t a trick question. It’s like how did that feel? Yes, there’s the mechanics and the logical side of did we do the right steps? But kind of bringing your whole person to the work, did that feel right? Did that feel natural to feel awkward? Is there anything we can do to be more comfortable? I think it’s really important to remember that.

Christy Erbeck: [16:39]  It is and it again helps create a space for us to have those human conversations. Um, it’s not, it is not just about the mechanics. That’s great. We are churning out working software at what cost, right. At what human costs are we doing that? It’s not, it’s not good if there’s too high of a cost.

Dan Neumann: [17:02]  Sure. The agile principles of working at that pace indefinitely. So do we have a sustainable pace? Um, it’s really critical to get the human taken care of because they’ll leave, they’ll quit and stay as the other phrase that comes to mind.

Christy Erbeck: [17:20]  Working agreements help eliminate some of the fear that people have, especially about saying something that might be controversial or conflicting. We as humans, we naturally do not like conflict. It’s very difficult and most of us will ignore it, evade it, completely walk away from it, rather than confront it. In our working agreement you can create safety to have those conversations to address that conflict in a healthy, safe way so the teams can work better.

Dan Neumann: [17:59] Yeah, I mean people, if people are worried about a reaction, if it’s going to be aggressive or lead somebody to be withdraw, you’re not going to get the collaboration that’s required to do really good work.

Christy Erbeck: [18:12]  Working agreements should lift teams up, not tear them down, should bring them together, not pull them apart.

Dan Neumann: [18:20]  Do any other tips come to mind?

Christy Erbeck: [18:26]  Humor helps. And I think I had said it earlier related to how are we going to celebrate our success? How are we going to have fun? We are a team. We are going to be working together. There may be very long hours, very difficult situations if we don’t understand or again, you can’t prescribe fun. That’s not what I’m saying. And I think it’s important to understand what fund means and what fun looks like to the team members so that we can allow the space to have fun.

Dan Neumann: [19:09]  And fun looks different for everybody.

Christy Erbeck: [19:10]  Absolutely. And for every team. Yes, absolutely. So, so much so. I mean for one team that I worked with, um, it was bowling. They, they all loved to bowl, so they wanted to have a regular bowling outlet. That was their way of having fun. I’m like, okay, I’m horrible at bowling but I’ll go with you. That’s okay.

Dan Neumann: [19:36]  I’ll go and I will have fun. Yeah. You touched on humor and that’s one humorous and interesting thing in that sometimes it’s aggression in disguise. I think it’s important to have a way to handle those types of things too. When somebody is violating them, the team norms and maybe people wouldn’t even have that as a working agreement item until it comes up as a either a mask for something uncomfortable. They use the humor to mask that or as a dig at somebody else done with a smile and a laugh, which still isn’t okay.

Christy Erbeck: [20:10]  Yes, not at all. And that type of passive behavior, passive aggressive behavior has to get fleshed out and dealt with. And so you’re right, humor might not be talked about initially in the working agreement. And as a team comes together and is together for awhile and you have those different types of humor showing up, it will get dealt with.

Dan Neumann: [20:35]  Excellent. That is an opportunity to refine working agreement to add the new context that might have emerged. So Christy, thank you for the insights on working agreements and what we’ve been doing at the end of some of the podcast episodes is just asking people what they’ve been reading. Continuous learning and staying relevant in the industry is really important for everybody. And I’m curious what you reading these days or have read?

Christy Erbeck: [21:00]  I am reading two books right now. Uh, the “Age of Agile,” I, I was on the wait list for when that book came out by Steven Denning and uh, before it was published, I was on the wait list for that. And I’ve been reading that book and not just reading it, I’ve been studying it. I’ve been deeply thinking about the concepts and all of the information and paradigm shifts that Steven talks about in the “Age of Agile.” It’s just been wonderful and I’m applying it immediately to our organization with our clients, even helping my husband with how he is showing up in the world and the work that he does. And then the other book that I’m reading right now is “Dare to Lead,” by Brené Brown and I may have been a follower of Brené’s for years and have read almost all of her books from “Daring Greatly” to “Braving the Wilderness” to “Rising Strong,” and now “Dare to Lead.” I think there’s only one book that I have not read of hers. And again, this is a book that is not just a reading book. This is for me, it deeply resonates with me and I am studying it.

Dan Neumann: [22:21]  That’s very cool. I’ve had “Age of Agile” on my reading list. I have it downloaded on audible, but haven’t clicked play yet, so I will do that and “Dare to Lead” is a new one to me, so I’ll have to check that out. Thanks for taking some time out of the other activities that you are normally doing and sharing.

Christy Erbeck: [22:40]  You’re welcome, Dan. It was my pleasure.

Outro: [22:43] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner Podcast brought to you by AgileThought, get the show notes and other helpful tips from this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

Stay Up-To-Date