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Michael Nir on Conduct Objectives for High Team Performance

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With Modern Agile, the concept of the team is under the spotlight, and creating a highly efficient team is the goal. But only few get there, mostly because it's hard to exit the storming phase of Tuckman's team stages. Some practices could help, and Michael Nir will present a workshop titled "Bring the Scrum Master a Glass of Water: Conduct Objectives for High Performance Team" during the Agile Games 2017 conference. Agile Games 2017 will take place in Boston, MA, from the 3rd to 5th of April. InfoQ will cover the event with Q&As and articles.

InfoQ spoke to Nir about the goal of Conduct Objectives, the way to measure behavior, the common problem with the appreciation of personalities, how to use a Team Charter, and the link with Core Protocols.

InfoQ: Michael, it is good to talk to you. Please could you introduce yourself?

Michael Nir: For the last 17 years I’ve been collaborating with various clients globally, the last 13 within my own consultancy where I provide consulting, coaching and  facilitate workshops. Presently I focus on Lean Agile, Lean Startup, Consumer Experience, and the Agile PMO. I developed several cutting-edge (wow J) workshops and I deliver fun (or so I hope), thought-provoking and practical keynotes.

InfoQ: Your next workshop is about Conduct Objectives. Could you explain what they are and why they matter for teams?

Nir: Great question; normally teams place much emphasis on the what – the deliverables. However, for teams’ performance to improve, they have to consider how they interact as well. Often team members will say they want to have trust, respect and effective communication within the team. These are labels – broad definitions that are qualitative and hard to measure. Conduct Objectives help us explore beyond the labels and articulate specific behaviors. 

InfoQ: Your workshop is centred around Conduct Objectives and Team Charters. What are Team Charters, and how are they linked to Conduct Objectives?

Nir: Team Charters are documents that define the purpose of the team, how it will work, and what the expected outcomes are. They are "roadmaps" that the team and its sponsors create at the beginning of the journey to make sure that all involved are clear about where they're heading, and to give direction when times get tough
Many times teams articulate the charter together as a "getting to know one another" session. I was facilitating a team building session the other day, and one of the dev managers said that usually team charters get stale with time, are never looked back at, and are a waste of time- I couldn't agree more!

Team charters are a one-time activity and aren't renewed when the team changes, and actually do not provide much value. That's where conduct objectives can make a difference.

Conduct Objectives help us articulate the behaviors behind the labels - team members say they want trust - however trust isn't actionable. The team needs to identify the specifics - what makes a certain behavior trust worthy. In multi cultural environments this is twice as important! And naturally, it is also a personal and perceptual discussion. The discussions team members have around conduct objectives are fascinating as they explore individual personal truths.

InfoQ: Team members usually have opinions about each other's personalities. This sometimes lead to miscomprehensions. What's your perspective on that?

Nir: If I had a dollar for every time I heard a team member complain about another's personality....

The thing with personality is that it doesn't exist, really... if you ever meet one, let me know ;-)

What we actually observe are behaviors, and we are very fast at jumping to conclusions; labeling a certain behavior as an underlying personality.

Research has shown (Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, for example) that we blame the personality of others for their misfortunes, while we blame the external environment when we err. That's why when our colleagues are late for a meeting, they are considered unreliable, while when we are late we were stuck in traffic. This tendency to blame the "personality" stands in our way of becoming an effective team; identifying conduct objectives - the measurable behaviors helps us circumvent that.

InfoQ: It feels strange to measure something such a "trusting behavior". Can you explain how Conduct Objectives helps?

Nir: Indeed, that’s the reason why we rarely use the team charter and growing as a team is difficult. While we know what we value, we find it difficult to articulate what the behaviors that contribute or detract from accomplishing that value are. Trust is a great example; it is a foundation of high performance and vital for team growth. Team members say they want to have trust in the team; but what does that mean? What does trust look like, how does it feel? When asking the team to identify the conduct objectives for trust, we’re actually asking them to identify the behaviors that they perceive lead to more trust and behaviors that lead lessen trust in the team. Thus, the label – trust – is actually transformed to specific, measurable, explicit behaviors that the team can monitor and hold its members accountable. It is a powerful exercise of team empowerment. Personally, it always amazes me how engaged the team members are when they start discussing the specific behaviors that they identify with trust and other labels; it is an empowering discussion, that enables members to share their personal ‘trust’ experience as they explore what it means for them.

InfoQ: We wrote about Core Protocols leading to Highly performing teams. What are the differences between Conduct Objectives and Core Protocols?

Nir: These are various facets of the fundamental: getting your team to perform better. Core protocols set forth a code of conduct. The team can agree to utilize them as part of a charter exercise - they are highly effective in getting the team to collaborate, handle conflict and decide! Conduct objectives focus more on the individuals and how they grow as individuals.

In every team there are two forces at play: the self as a discrete entity, and assimilated within the team – as the team moves through the five stages of team maturity: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning – the weight and tension of these forces changes recursively. Core protocols promote the assimilation part, while conduct objectives focus on the role of the individual as a discrete entity as it interacts with the team; both are vital, but I am getting carried away. Suffice it to say that both play an important role in helping teams grow and mature.

InfoQ: You have used Conduct Objectives in various companies and various cultures. What are the pitfalls teams face when using Conduct Objectives?

Nir: Reluctance to accept that personality is an abstract - a figment of our imagination; we are truly fast to pass judgement on other team members and are slow to acknowledge that we are prone to bias. Individuals have a tough time giving others the same leeway they are giving themselves (that when they err it is because of their shortcomings and when we err it is the environment)  - we are all shaped by the environment we operate in.

InfoQ: If our readers want to use Conduct Objectives, what do you suggest as a first step?

Nir: Meet with the team and identify the measurable behaviors that are "hiding" behind the values that the team cares for.

Create a metric for the behavior – in other words – what are specific behaviors that support a certain value, and what behaviors detract from it. The team can discuss it during a retro and can decide how to improve or lead through patterns that emerge.

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