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How to Work Within Ground Rules and Norms

To a large extent, the team’s parent organizational culture defines the dos and don’ts for acceptable behavior. Dress code, communication channels, and work hours are defined and enforced by the corporate culture or one of its subcultures.

Military organizations, and other government organizations, and private sector companies, such as Boeing or Pratt & Whitney who work closely with them, tend toward a highly structured chain of command. On the other hand, high-tech, private sector companies such as Google are much less formal in hierarchy and culture.

When you work on a team, whether in the public or private sector, you need to conform in certain ways. Many ground rules for teams in business and government are defined by policies. Sexual harassment policy, vacation policy, promotion policy and other policies are generally set by your organization’s management.

Ground rules for an army infantry unit specify that if you are ordered to charge that hill, you charge the hill. You are given a direct order, NOT a request. Ground rules are more likely to be written.

Is your organization team-driven? Is it primarily project-driven? Are self-managing teams the norm? In a team-oriented organization, team norms usually exist, sometimes on conference room   or “war” room walls. Teams may define many of their own norms and ground rules, in collaboration with their leadership.

The organizational culture, norms, and the nature of the work itself will determine whether it is important to be at a project status meeting promptly, or whether it is acceptable to be ten or fifteen minutes late. Some team members have been fined for being late!

The ground rules and guidelines for many project teams are quite formal. Many organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in creating a set of standards and a methodology to guide their project teams. Invariably, these teams have guidelines for planning and accomplishing their work. It is almost always easier to make a change to an existing standard process or template, than it is to go back to square one, and create a new one.

The Apparel Accelerator Project at New Balance used a standard, detailed project management methodology that includes phases, activities, and a formal change process. Their methodology includes sample forms, deliverables, and a project lifecycle. Structure of project phases at New Balance:

  1. Project Initiation
  2. Detailed Planning and Requirements
  3. Design
  4. Develop
  5. Validation
  6. Acceptance
  7. Deployment and Stabilization

Each phase has its own purpose, core deliverables, infrastructure deliverables, and notes. Team members were encouraged to provide suggestions for improving both the project management processes, and the new custom ordering process.

To work within ground rules and norms:

  1. Learn about the organization’s culture before joining. When possible arrange an “informational interview” before a job interview with someone in the group you may join.
  2. Ask your teammates about the ground rules, norms, and the expectations about conformance.
  3. When you join a group, find sources of organization-specific information such as processes, policies, and procedures.
  4. Help to create a methodology, work templates, or other guidelines as necessary to improve efficiency.
  5. Avoid reinventing the wheel. Dig for information about previous similar work.

Thomas Charles Belanger is the author of Teamwork in Ten Days: Building Successful Teams in the Arts, Sports, Business, and Government, available at and Barnes and Noble.

©2012, Thomas Belanger

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