How Using a Team Charter Helps Our Distributed Firefox User Research Team Connect and Align

About the Firefox User Research (UR) Team at Mozilla

Firefox User Research is a distributed team within Mozilla dedicated to conducting mixed methods research to define and support work related to Firefox products and services, present and future. Currently, the team consists of 11 people across North America: a director, a research operations specialist, and nine researchers with different backgrounds, training, and experiences.

6 people seated at a table in a restaurant, with an open laptop on the table showing one person onscreen

Some members of the Firefox User Research team in Berlin, Germany in January 2020 (Thank you to Gemma Petrie for sharing the photo.)

In early 2019, then Firefox UR team members decided to develop a team charter, a living document containing information about team members, individual and team learning goals, and team operating principles and guidelines. At that time, the team and Mozilla were undergoing some big changes, and both the act of composing a charter and the charter itself were meant to help us:

  • Take care of one another
  • Individually and collectively reflect on what we want to learn and the kind of team we want to be
  • Define and discuss values and norms
  • Make goals and aspirations explicit

How we made our first team charter

Back in 2019, the team held a team charter kick-off meeting over video conference to develop a shared understanding of what team charters are and to discuss an approach for creating a charter.

Photo of several dozen people building the frame of a large building

Title slide from the Firefox User Research team’s team charter kick-off (Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash)

The charter format we used includes the following key areas:

  • Individual learning goals: What each team member wants to learn from being a member of the team
  • Team learning goals: What the team collectively wants to accomplish
  • Team operating principles, expectations, and ways of working: Specific team values with related expectations and example behaviors
  • Personal profiles: An overview of each member of the team including background, key personality traits, preferred modes of communication, work style and habits, work time availability, and anything else the team member believes teammates should know
  • Charter governance: How the team expects to develop and maintain the team charter

The original team charter template also included two other sections, which the team has foregone for the time being. There was a section for defining team roles, which the team decided does not apply to us given how we work with different product teams. There was also a section on how we give developmental feedback, which the team decided to delay since we were in the middle of hiring a director, who we assumed may want to define a feedback process.

Team culture considerations

The Firefox User Research team charter is a document private to the people currently on the team since we discuss very specific aspects of our working styles and professional goals in the charter. For this post, the team has given me permission to share a few examples from our charter to illustrate what a UR team charter might include.

Team charter goals are not used to measure performance. One of the questions I got when introducing the team charter structure to the team in 2019 was: “Should the individual and team goals to be listed in the charter be the same as our individual and team OKRs that we use bi-annually as a Mozilla-wide practice?” For the time being, the team decided that charter goals and OKRs should be distinct, the former being time-bound and with the qualities of SMART goals and the latter longer-term and perhaps more aspirational. An individual OKR may revolve around socializing user research in new ways and publishing a blog post about a past study, whereas an individual learning goal in the charter might be to gain experience with research methods that are less familiar.

Sharing and celebrating each other’s work. The section of the charter we re-visit, discuss, and revise most often is what is called Team Operating Principles, Expectations, and Ways of Working. This section is meant to make explicit the team’s core values and behavioral norms. One team value or principle with nuances specific to user research is: Share and celebrate each other’s work.

We define this principle as “recognizing when team members hit milestones important to them (e.g., presentations, publications, breakthroughs with project teams, research proposal for new kind of study, etc.).” A few of the concrete examples of this principle in action, included in the charter, are:

  • Take the time in 1:1s, team meetings, Slack, etc. to understand which milestones are meaningful to teammates.
  • If you hear something good being said about a team member’s work, tell that team member what you heard.
  • If you have information or past experience that could support a teammate’s success, share that information with the teammate in a timely manner.

The Firefox User Research Team Charter contains three other principles that follow a similar structure with examples.

What we’ve learned from having a team charter

9 people in a grid on a video conference call

Nine current members of the Firefox User Research team in our weekly team meeting this week

Earlier this year, I reached out to some of my teammates to get their thoughts on the charter, including its value and limitations. One person who joined the team after the first version of the charter was drafted explained:

“When I was brand new to the team, it was helpful to learn about each team member’s…communication styles, schedules, life challenges, and accessibility issues. It was a digital document, but it felt incredibly intimate…and it helped me feel closer to my distributed teammates.”

Another person, who has been on the team for several years noted that the personal profiles can help with empathy in-the-moment, saying that the personal profile,

“gives me a better ‘read’ on why my remote team members might be acting the way they are. It helps me understand them and give them the benefit of the doubt when they respond to something in a way that I would never do, ha!”

We have also felt some limitations to the charter, especially as the team has grown in size. One team member noted that having someone champion the idea of a charter and explain it is important. Who that person should be is an open question. At the time our team started its charter, I happened to be a team charter enthusiast who wanted to pilot the use of a charter for our team. Since then, we have gained a director for our team, and our team structure has changed, making for other potential charter champions. Additionally, 11 team members makes for a lot of content, and the document itself can feel lost in the shuffle of Google documents we work in everyday. We have also felt the challenge of updating the charter. For governance, our charter dictates that we revisit the charter:

  • Whenever a new person joins the team
  • Whenever a team member proposes changes to collectively-authored sections
  • Whenever a team member requests team review of the charter
  • At the start of UR team work weeks
  • At minimum two times per year

That frequency may not sound particularly difficult, but staff turnover and big organizational changes, including asking team members who have been shuffled around in “re-orgs” to compose lengthy sections of the charter, can necessitate more flexibility with and even brief distance from charter work.

Another lesson I have learned about using team charters over the years and was reminded of recently — perhaps the most important lesson — is that charters can be valuable for fostering psychological safety, team cohesion, and operational effectiveness. However, no matter how rich your team charter is, no matter how frequently you update it, the charter’s benefits will be limited if there are other elements on the team or in the broader organization that endanger psychological safety and/or are otherwise exclusionary. The team charter can be a powerful tool, but it is only one tool.

Thanks to a suggestion of a researcher on the team, Firefox User Research is in the process of revisiting our charter to discuss whether we need to adjust any of our operating principles and norms given the COVID-19 pandemic. This opportunity to review the charter is a reminder that the charter is meant to be dynamic and ultimately serve the team’s needs.

Give it a try

If our experience with a team charter has piqued your interest, give it a try with your team. You can use the template we use.

For the team charter template I adapted, I am deeply indebted to Northwestern University’s Master’s in Learning and Organizational Change program. I am also grateful to the Mozillians who generously reviewed an early draft of this post.

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