Developing cross-team guiding principles

0 min read

Francis Pilon

This article is a collaboration with Mary Ellen Sanajko, owner of Conduit Coaching, a coaching firm providing team, personal and executive leadership coaching. Mary Ellen has been providing us with insights for nearly three years.

This article charts some new territory for us in working with clients and partners. We have been trying a new approach to cross team collaboration which has been quite valuable.

A few weeks back, The Jibe headed off to Kelowna, accompanied by Andrew and Adam from The Still, to meet with a (then) potential client: The Garage Sale Auction Events. We had learned long ago that joining forces with external creative / communication teams lets us focus on what we’re really good at: all things technical.

We were welcomed in the most civilized way and spent a great deal of time getting to know each other. As we were discussing our potential collaboration, we were asked if we would consider building a set of Guiding Principles that would steer us throughout the project — effectively unifying 3 organizations into one team.

You may have heard of this type of exercise being within a single organization, especially in cases of a recent merger. Perhaps this is something you have done with your own team. We’ve done something similar internally, which you can find here. In any case, I had never heard of this being done in a cross-organizational fashion and was very curious about the process and the impact such an agreement would have on a project.

The Brainstorm

We returned to Kelowna a couple weeks later, after winning the contract (yay!). We had scheduled a full-day kickoff meeting. The plan was to touch on the usual suspects (branding, past successes/hardships, technology requirement, constraints/opportunities, etc.), but we also made ample room in our schedule to collaborate on defining our Guiding Principles.

The session was led by Jacqui Coward, an organizational development consultant at Source 4 Leadership, who initially presented on concepts that apply to highly functional teams, such as defining a clear purpose and outcome-based goals. The nature of the project itself made these relatively obvious.

We split into three groups tasked with creating a set of principles that would best move the project forward in a successful fashion, regardless of the situation. The process of generating this first draft was a bit messy, but the point was to not get tangled in semantics and to just put ideas out there. Describing ideas simply, for instance in just a few words rather than in long sentences seemed to work best, especially in the next step.

After 20 minutes we reconvened and took turns exposing our ideas. Would you be surprised if I said that the ideas themselves were very similar across all teams?

Most certainly, the arduous and most time consuming part of the exercise was merging each group’s different statements in order to come up with a set of unified and concise principles. A couple considerations:

Try to come up with statements that can be acted upon and are measurable; Keep the number of principles to a reasonable number. A good trick to use as a guideline is: if you were to read your Guiding Principles at the beginning of each meeting would it be unpleasantly long?

Here are the results from our session:

Nurture effective communication; Be creative and innovative in each element of the project; Test our assumptions to ensure short term results and long term growth and sustainability; Build on each others strengths and ideas, with a keen eye for detail, to build extraordinary results; Recognize and celebrate accomplishments, successes, and milestones; Care and support for the well-being of our employees, partners, clients and the community; Keep [the end] client in mind at all times.


A few weeks into the project, I asked everyone on the team how they saw the project evolving in relation to our guiding principles. I got very encouraging feedback:

I am pretty impressed with the quality of communication going through three different companies that are working on achieving the same goal. I think that this [project management tool] actually lends very well to ensuring that we are all up to date with what is going on. I was completely amazed at the creativity that went into this [phase of the project]. It is always cool when a vision can be iterated upon and improved. I think the innovative ideas that have gone into this product are first class. Working on this project this time around definitely has less anxiety than in past attempts. We have definitely achieved [the objective of building on each others strengths and ideas]. It has been a great collaborative effort and it is always nice to see how we can play off each other's strengths. [It is harder to] measure our progress with [regards to the last two] principles, but I feel they are principles that are demonstrated on a daily basis. We have the celebrating part down! :)

Try it!

The goal of this exercise is to build behavioural agreement for support and accountability. It also helps with team members bounding in quite an efficient way.

Here are a few questions that you can use, internally, with a partner or client to come up with your own set of Guiding Principles:

What is the culture/atmosphere you want to create together? What will have the team flourish? What can you count on from each other? What's your commitment? What are you committed to? How do you want to react when things get hard? How do we expect others to react and interact? What do you want to do if parts of the project goes off the rails? How do you want to celebrate success? What are the indicators of success? What will the structures of support and accountability be (eg: weekly/biweekly meetings or scrums, what time/place, agenda, roles, etc)?

Have you ever tried an approach similar to this? What has worked and what has not? Share with us your experience!

Tuning fork picture by Shaylor.