In the social sector, we often come together as individuals for important work, but are we really working together as one team? To really make a difference, we need to maximize our team efforts in our department and executive team meetings as well as in our community collaborations.

One of the fundamentals many teams, particularly those formed for collaboration, lack is a shared culture. Individuals have conflicting visions, expectations and ideas about appropriate behavior. In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge called these notions “mental models.” We all have our own ideas about how to best work together as a team. At Social Impact Architects, we have found that the best first step for any team is to start with key elements that help us align our expectations. Below we address key areas where teams fail, and provide solutions that help create shared understanding and a collaborative structure.

  • Different Visions of Success → Visioning Exercise: When social sector professionals attend a meeting to discuss a new project, we are often optimistic about the opportunity to work together, but this enthusiasm fades if we don’t share the same vision for success. To prevent this from happening, we like to spend the first meeting brainstorming what success and impact mean in tangible ways (e.g., we get media coverage). This helps put everyone on the same page and builds energy for the work. We also encourage a “joint therapy” session in which individuals share what has worked before (so it can be replicated) and what has not worked (so it can be overcome). This also helps the group bond as a team.

  • Different Mental Models of Working Together → Ways of Working Agreements: When we come together, we have different past experiences and expectations. For all teams, it is important to agree upon “ways of working” (e.g., how we will work together most efficiently). This process should define our purpose and goals as well as set guidelines for behavior. It should also address how the team will approach conflict or hold members accountable for results. While it is ideal to create “ways of working” at the beginning of projects, it can be done at any point to establish or reset the group’s norms.

  • Different Rules of Engagement → Ground Rule Agreement: Ground rules can be very simple and helpful in settings like retreats and meetings to set group expectations for behavior. Our favorite is the “ditto” rule for when you share the same feelings with the person speaking. Instead of rehashing an argument with different words, just say “ditto.” We also like creating a “parking lot” to place tangential conversations for later discussion. We find it best to include ground rules up front at every meeting as a reminder.



Many of us in the social sector have worked in teams with individuals/agencies with diverse points of view to address complicated issues facing our communities. Establishing a shared vision, ways of working and ground rules can help us keep our team efforts on point while getting the work done together and increasing accountability. If you have used other tools for increasing your team’s productivity or have great ideas for ground rules, please share them with us!

Sign up to receive the Social TrendSpotter e-newsletter

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email