Agreements for Productive Group Work


Facilitators and mediators have learned that it is very productive to spend time at the outset on reaching a written agreement, among the people whom they are assisting, on how they are going to work together. These process agreements are variously referred to as "contracts," "protocols" and "ground rules". At the bottom of the page I provide links to excerpts from facilitators and mediators who have written about the rationale and power of such agreements and the kind of clauses they have found to be useful in different kinds of situations and applications.

Drawing on these ideas and my own experiences, I have long recommended that students who are working together on a project should draft an agreement at the outset that will make their work more productive (i.e. yield better products, created with more satisfaction and less effort and grief, and completed on time). The larger the number of people involved, the less the participants are familiar with each other and the greater the scope and complexity of the project, the more time spent in crafting an appropriately detailed agreement will pay off. Thus substantial, term-long group projects involving more than a couple of people, in particular the case study negotiations in 595 that involve additional complexities with role-playing, can benefit immensely from spending half-an-hour in creating an agreement as part of getting the project underway.

There are huge advantages to ensuring that everyone involved in the project is on the same page with regard to key factors such as

Clarification of such basics leads naturally into critically important questions about the participants'

And, inevitably into operating procedures such as

Talking about all these issues at the beginning, to make sure everyone has the same understanding of such important and fundamental considerations, is both an easier point of departure and one that can head off problems that will otherwise arise later in more disruptive and damaging ways. Establishing performance expectations in advance makes it much more likely that participants will aspire to them and, if some should fall short, to deal with the problem effectively.

Agreements are stronger and serve the group better if they contain clauses addressing each of the considerations in terms that are detailed enough to be readily implemented. Try to make them as operational as possible in the beginning but also be prepared to revise your agreement to be more specific as you encounter the need for this. Likewise be prepared to refine the clauses in your agreement as you discover what does not work and what would work better. You will also probably find there are issues you did not anticipate and that you will want to add in.

It is worthwhile giving some thought as to how you can create positive and negative incentives to induce people to live up to the terms of the agreement. For example, how will you celebrate achievements? When someone fails to deliver their contribution on time, maybe they bring the goodies for the next meeting. If it happens a second time, perhaps they host everyone for dinner. The challenge is to craft incentives that fit the circumstances and can be readily brought into effect.

And don't forget to build in ingredients for making it enjoyable and fun - place, surroundings, food, drink and timeouts can be powerful influences in making "work" more productive.


Read More

Basic Facilitation Skills by the International Association of Facilitators discusses "charters", "agendas" and "ground rules" for meetings on pages 12-17.

Breaking Robert's Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus, and Get Results by Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank (2006) provides "suggested ground rules" on pages 188-200. Negotiation Materials Site also see Breaking Robert's Rules

Reaching Agreement by the British Columbia Round Table on Environment and Economy (1991) discusses "establishing the rules", "applying consensus tools", "dealing with failure to reach consensus", and "time, resources and cost-effectivenenss" for collaborative decision making processes on pages 23-29.

The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups by Roger Schwarz (1994) discusses at length "contracting: deciding whether and how to work together" in chapter 3; see particularly the summary tables 3.2 (p. 53) and 3.3 (p.62). Negotiation Materials Site also see Roger Schwarz & Associates Inc.

The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (2007 edition), a required text for 595, has two chapters on designing "effective agendas" pages 135-187.