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Creating an Effective Team Charter for Remote Teams

 

Focused on delivering value through highly productive and engaged distributed teams, Svitla Systems houses an impressive group of skilled IT professionals who immerse themselves in our clients’ projects. Having reached the mark of over 1000+ teammates on board, who work on over 160 projects, often in cross-teams and from different locations, we can confidently state, that our approach to managing distributed teams has become our hallmark, strongly valued by our clients as we add so much needed flexibility and talent to their projects and onsite teams. 

Today, in a conversation with Olena Kapitanenko, Project Lead at Svitla Systems we will highlight our best tips for project management, focusing on charter-building sessions, and why they are essential to maintain highly productive IT teams. 

How did your journey with Svitla begin? 

— Five years ago, we began collaborating with one of our now-top clients, a massive American corporation specializing in eye care healthcare with a profound focus on data engineering and analysis. Their reason for partnering with Svitla was their strong need for a solution that would help them improve performance analysis services to boost and automate core operational aspects of the business. 

With this premise in mind, I was the first person to join this project on behalf of Svitla Systems as a Business Analyst. After a month of onboarding sessions with the client, I had the opportunity to document key processes for them including:

  • Validating the system for possible issues
  • Migrating data from one system to another
  • Documenting the database categorization algorithm
  • Creating the initial project’s documentation

With the onboarding taken care of, and plenty of client processes fully documented, we hired a team of analysts with me acting as the lead to train them on how to categorize database, set up client accounts, validate reports, and other documented workflows and tasks. Additionally, I was in charge of managing Jira, looking into bugs, keeping US-based tech and management teams briefed on project status, participating in team evaluatinos and performance review sessions, interviewing new candidates for open positions in the project, and more. 

Color us interested! What is the main difference between this project and your past experience?

—​ What first caught my attention was the fact that the project was in the healthcare domain, which automatically meant there were a lot of regulations involved including:

  • FDA (Food and Drug Association) standards and regulations
  • ISO standards, such as ISO 9001:2015
  • SOC-2 
  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

Compliance is always a huge challenge, and the healthcare space is known for handling critical and sensitive data, meaning that adhering to regulations and standards becomes that much more important. As the project grew, I quickly realized the next big challenge was managing our distributed teams. 

Tasks became more complex and as such, the team grew to adequately meet these new challenges. For the last few years, the team has been comprised of a dispersed team of analysts, developers, QA engineers, automation engineers, and more, all of whom are working remotely from different parts of the world. Even before COVID-19, we all mostly worked from different offices around the world but in the last couple of years most of us are working fully remote. 

Throughout the process of developing new software for our client and using it for analysis and operational activities, we found a way to combine product development and use it as a service. How? We combined several different project management approaches fit-to-purpose working under the SCRUM framework and using Kanban for operational work. 

Great! Could you please share tips for project managers about distributed teams?

— Of course! I see two pillar stones when it comes to managing distributed teams: competencies and qualifications. As a manager, I leverage different tools and frameworks to maximize the work of our distributed teams.

For instance, I employ the SCRUM framework to our collective benefit as I’ve found it’s the perfect groundwork to help people, teams, and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems, which is definitely the case for us. I won’t dwell on this too much as this topic is very well-known in the Project Management space in an Agile PMIs branch. 

The second and most important thing to effectively manage distributed teams is to put together a strong team of collaborators who excel at communication, iterative work, problem-solving, and the overall improvement of processes. 

What tools would you recommend for that?

— While there are several tools out there that can make working with distributed teams a more streamlined endeavor, today, I’ll focus on aligning remote teams via a team chartering process. 

First, let’s define a "team" as a group of people who perform interdependent tasks working towards accomplishing a common goal or specific objective. 

Since the osmotic spread of information doesn't necessarily flow as well as it should, remote teams need to communicate more and align more frequently in terms of values and agreements. This need for stronger communication affects how the team charter looks. Worth mentioning, the team charter should be a living document, meaning it should be updated and expanded when team members or roles change, or when previous goals are reached.

Could you share team charter example and explain how to prepare for the charter-building facilitation?

— For a successful team charter-building session, I recommend the following:

Find a facilitator

This is a crucial aspect. I highly recommend that you employ a facilitator who is one hundred percent dedicated to doing this exact work. Trying to be both a facilitator and a participant can lead to misalignment and lack of focus. It is also a good option to hire an external facilitator who will be an unbiased specialist fully capable of conducting the session.

Decide who we will be invited to the meeting

For example, for offshore/outstaff development teams, you can invite the customer to increase the level of mutual empathy and better define the goals for the team.

Explicitly define the length of the session

From experience, I recommend booking a session of 2-2.5 hours for a team of up to ten people. If workloads don’t allow to hold such a long session, I recommend scheduling two meetings, each of 1-1.5 hours so you avoid compressing everything into a shorter session and jeopardizing quality. 

Choose the right tools for the meeting

Include the next important points:

  • Make sure you use a video conference tool that is comfortable for everyone. There should be a messenger app or service that suits everyone, along with the capability to hold the meeting for the right length of time with screen-sharing. Often, I use Zoom Pro as an external facilitator. 
  • Provide a visual canvas everyone can access such as Miro or Mural. It’s advisable to test tools in advance to ensure they’ll be suitable for the meeting and for different people. Adjust privacy settings to ensure the confidentiality of session results. 
  • Decide where you want to store meeting results. This can be either on the canvas mentioned above or in a separate wiki or Confluence page. 
  • The presenter must choose the meeting format as there are many different ways to conduct the event. 
  • Ensure people’s engagement and focus by establishing the right sense of importance. Of course, you can adjust expectations and establish agreements during the meeting, but if every other person has their cameras turned off, it will be too late to fix it during the meeting. Instead, set expectations and reach agreements prior to the session. 

How to hold the facilitation event?

— The meeting can be structured into three parts: opening, middle (the main part), and conclusion.

Opening

The main goals of this phase:

  • Familiarize the team with the meeting plan
  • Create a safe conducting environment
  • Establish contact with the team

In the opening, there are typically energy boosters, icebreakers, etc., depending on the context of the meeting.

The main part 

The middle, most important part can take up to 90% of the entire meeting timeline and it consists of several blocks. 

People and roles. At the beginning, we go through a list of preliminary questions and explain to the team exactly what is expected in terms of readiness. For individual filling, I recommend reserving 2-3 minutes for each point. Below is an example of what questions people answer, on average.

My name and photo. Importantly, people can add what they want to be called. For example, Anastasia can be called Nastya, and Antonio Juan Maria da Costa - in the team can be called Kostya. Also, it is not always possible for participants to quickly find a picture to add, which can easily be recorded with a group screenshot from the conference (of course, with the cameras turned on).

What are my key responsibilities and roles. Here, it is important to get the vision of specific people. The position can be called anything, but two engineers can put very different things as their roles.

In order for me to perform at my best, I expect others to… This is an open definition of your expectations, and it is important to start with a constructive formulation of what behavior you expect from colleagues.

In order for me to work at my best, I expect others not to… A similar question, but from the opposite perspective. On average, this section is filled much less, although if there are clear anti-patterns, it is better to know about it immediately.

What my colleagues don't know about me yet (yet :)) This section can reveal new surprises even for those who have been working together for a long time.

My superpower is that… Here, most often, we have a mixture of working and leisure considerations, where a person highlights what they consider they do best.

I can share with you…A very useful part that often improves the team’s cross-functionality. This often serves as the impetus to share knowledge.

After people have filled in their answers to the questions above, everyone goes through their part with comments, and then we move on to the next block.

Purpose and goals

Defining a high-level mission for the team. 

We typically answer the following questions:

  • How exactly do we affect the lifecycle of our company?
  • How exactly do we affect the life and habits of consumers (and/or other external people)?
  • What do we expect from the organization?
  • What do we expect from users?

To shape this, I recommend either having the answers or part of them crafted from the product owner or having decision-makers in the meeting.

The second part is aimed at "smartening" it. Some of the best closing questions include:

  • How exactly will we know that we have achieved the goal?
  • How long does it take to complete the goal?
  • What triggers can we set for this purpose?

The third part of the block is the search for resources to realize the team's goal.

  • What exactly is needed?
  • What or who is missing?
  • Is there something we can do on an ongoing basis to advance toward our goal?

Values ​​and agreements

Main questions for this section:

  • What values ​​do we share?
  • How should we feel when we work as a team?
  • How exactly do we make decisions as a team?
  • How do we enter and exit conflicts?
  • How do we define areas of responsibility?
  • How do we communicate within and outside the team?

Closing the meeting

Exit from the main part, the main purpose of the phase is:

  • Establish agreements
  • Collect feedback from participants

Is it necessary to repeat the charter if the team changes?

— This is a very important consideration and one that often causes confusion. The team charter is designed to help the team, from formation to further development, and therefore, if the team changes or new agreements are added, the artifact must also change to reflect those changes. I recommend using complementary practices from modern management and facilitation frameworks such as delegation boards from Management 3.0. 

In my practice, the tools I’ve shared with you here are essential to maintain stable and highly productive IT teams, and they have proved their usefulness and effectiveness over time. 
 

by Olena Kapitanenko, Project Lead at Svitla Systems
October 25, 2022

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