December 1, 2014

How to make a social contract and build better teams

In post one and two in this series, we discovered how emotions and behaviours are contagious and can have a dramatic impact on a team. Let’s now explore some approaches that help encourage positive behaviour and help us manage when things get difficult.

This post, number three in this series, covers Social Contracts, why they are important, how to create one and how to use it.

Social contracts are becoming popular in agile teams, as awareness builds on the relationship between individual behaviours, team performance and product quality. They are an incredibly simple yet powerful tool.


Think about a negative experience you have had working in a team.

  • What values and behaviours were at odds?

  • How did this make you feel?

  • How did these emotions impact the energy and productivity of the team?

  • How was the negative situation handled?  Did someone from outside the team (e.g. a manager) have to step in and sort it out?

  • Did the process result in sustained, meaningful behavioural change?

  • Perhaps the situation was never actually resolved and you can still feel the impact of that in the team to this day?


A social contract is a team-designed agreement for a aspirational set of values, behaviours and social norms. Think of it as a vision for how it would be to work in an incredibly safe and powerful team.

When a group jointly creates such a vision, a powerful thing happens. Our sub-conscious processes go to work to actually create such an environment. As Buddha said "we shape the world with our thoughts." That is, we get what we expect out of life.

If we perceive the world negatively then guess what? We notice all the negative stuff and reinforce our belief system. If our thoughts are on creating an environment of trust and openness, then incredible things tend to start to happen.



The problems we face today are vastly more complex than those we faced 30-40 years ago. Complex problems are solved with creative and often collective thinking.

Traditional management has been based on the concept of creating fail-safe environments. That is, we attempt to plan out all the work, then attempt to “manage” the system to avoid failure. Such an environment tends to result in sterile workplaces, void of the creativity and innovation necessary to solve complex problems.

The Cynefin framework teaches us that complexity is best approached using a model of experimentation, or as Snowden puts it "probe-sense-respond". Agile is based on this approach. Snowden emphasises that experimentation requires a “safe-to-fail” environment. Co-creating a social contract helps create an alliance that moves us towards such an environment.

Think about it – how comfortable are you attempting something new in front of a crowd of total strangers versus in front of close family?



So how to you create a social contract?

There is no handbook on how to do this. It is common sense really. Our end objective is some sort of artefact created by the team that they believe in.

Here are some tips on how to do this.

  • Book a nice comfortable room for a workshop with the team. Avoid uncomfortable rooms - we want everyone to feel good! Try to also avoid times where people might find it difficult to concentrate (for example close to the end of a Sprint, Friday afternoon or Monday morning).

  • It can be really useful to have a facilitator. By this I mean someone with no vested interest in the outcome. Research has shown that teams are much more powerful when we have Deep Democracy – i.e. all perspectives are heard. A facilitator can help with this.

  • Start off asking what each person wold like out of the session. Target the individuals selfish desires: “what do you want to achieve from this workshop?” The reason for doing this is to establish a critical point early in the discussion; they own this experience. If they feel forced into this then the result will likely be poor.

  • Often I will then try to get everyone into a relaxed, energized and positive state of mind. A great way of going this is a game. Good candidates include The Ball Game, Destroy, Tangled Mess. Or see Tasty Cup Cakes for other options.

  • As a facilitator, I then ask lots of questions to get people going: What do we value? What's important? What would make this team powerful? What can we count on from one another? How will we know we have achieved this? What will it feel like? Try to focus on the core values. Remember – you are just a facilitator. Avoid making suggestions or leading questions. Remember this is their session.

  • Try to get them discussing what it would look like to experience these values as behaviours. What would it feel like to be part of a team like this?

  • Write it down or draw it (I tend to use a flip chart). Keep it raw and simple. Don’t feel you have to product a neat version after the session. Keep it the way you (or the team) developed it. The subtleties of the symbols, pictures and words create mental triggers that help the participants go back to the feelings and aspirations they experienced in the session.


The team might also want to include more routine things in their social contract:



  • Noise – do we desire a quiet working space? If so how do we handle mobile phones? What if we need to talk to each other?

  • What are our protocols for avoiding task switching by interrupting each other? How do we want to handle this?

  • Is it okay to check in buggy code?

  • How will we update the social contract? Will we review it each retrospective (a good idea!)


It is critical that this is a whole-of-team exercise. It is unlikely that absent team members will feel ownership, which will in turn dilute the power of the contract and the team.  Another important consideration is how the team will induct new people.  I have seen teams



  • ask the new member questions similar to what we ask in the initial session (such as “what is important?” and “what do you think we should be able to count on from one another?”)

  • then walk the new team member through the existing social contract.

  • Ask them how do you feel about this and whether they would like to change anything.

  • If so then update the contract.





So how and when do you actually use a social contract?

Scrum is based upon transparency, from which we can then inspect and adapt. Transparency applies to everything in Scrum - including behaviour.

Having a social contract in place allows us to check each other’s behaviour when we feel it is inconsistent with what we target. Social contracts provide a mechanism to do this without it feeling personal. For example, rather than saying “I am sick of you being such a total ass”, we can instead say something like “I thought we agreed that treating each other with respect was something very important for us as a team?”  Notice the lack of “you”, “me” and “I”?  We are simply stating that we are seeing a behavioural pattern that is inconsistent with what we said was important. Quite a different and powerful tact.

Social contracts also help create and maintain positivity by envisioning what a great team feels like. Research on team behaviour shows us that negative to positive behaviour ratios are important:



  • low performing teams a ratio of 0.36:1

  • medium performing have a ratio of  2:1

  • high performing teams have a ratio of 5:1 (interestingly so do good marriages)





Conflict will always be present. It is the nature of improving teams. Conflict is a change urge, not a problem to be managed. When someone wants change, it will often involve some form of conflict. As a leader, your job is to provide the container in which the team can manage its own conflict. Social contracts are an effective container.

Finally, don't forget the social contract is a living document. Don't forget to remind the team to include it in their retrospectives! It will likely change over time.

Note: This post first appeared on my blog