Missing Deadlines? A Team Charter Can Get You Back on Track

Last Updated Apr 7, 2010 7:07 AM EDT

Ever wonder how people can work so hard and still blow an assignment? Individuals toil night and day, personal milestones are met -- but the customer is complaining and people are griping about each other. Often it's because we develop tunnel vision and forget why we're doing the job in the first place. A team charter can be the answer.

On a recent episode of the Cranky Middle Manager Show, I spoke to Joe Calloway and Kris Young, authors of "Never By Chance: Aligning People and Strategy Through Intentional Leadership" about why meetings so often go off track. Joe told a story about a bank that starts every meeting with a recap of their mission and why they're working on a particular project. I immediately did what you probably just did -- rolled my eyes and said, "Come on ... every meeting? That must drive people crazy." I had visions of kids numbly doing a project team version of the Pledge of Allegiance. Then I stopped to think about why this might not be such a bad idea:

  1. The act of creating a charter or mission statement brings the team together. Any project is only as good as the way it starts. Do people truly understand what the end result is supposed to be, or are they focused only on their individual tasks and goals? If you're constantly revisiting the goals, it's awfully hard for people to claim they forgot them. Getting buy-in from all parties and hearing each person explicitly commit to the team is a darned good start, and it happens less than you think.
  2. Remembering why you're there helps meeting leaders maintain order. One of the hardest jobs a team leader has to do is manage conference calls and webmeetings effectively. How do you keep people on task and not get caught up in trivial details? Restating the purpose of the project up front gives you a reason to ask the single most important question to get people back on track: "Is this issue going to get us to our goal?" If it is, then let's handle it. If it's not, let's take it off line. One more reason for meeting leaders to recap the charter or mission is that when meetings bog down, the desire to get back on track is for the good of the team and the project, not just lowering your blood pressure as the meeting leader (although that's an important side benefit, to be sure). Keep conflict focused on the work, not on personalities.
  3. It gives your team a reason to break out of silos. In the normal day-to-day grind, cross-functional teams frequently get focused on their roles and lose sight of the big picture. If I'm focused only on my goals, why should I help someone from another department with their challenges? On the other hand, if Nancy missing her goal impacts everyone else, I'm more likely to chip in. An explicit periodic reminder of why we're all on this project in the first place helps get people working together and makes asking for help from each other easier (which means less work for you as the manager -- not a bad bonus).
Start each meeting with a very clear understanding of where your team is headed, and it's much easier to help them get there.

photo by flickr user stevendepolo CC2.0