The Mechanics of Contracting
In my last post, I described the importance of contracting between change facilitators and the sponsors they serve, and I outlined the basic principles involved. Yet, many practitioners are not as proficient in this skill as they need to be.
As I stated earlier, contracting should be pursued within a fluid context with principles, not by following inflexible rules. That said, having a framework to follow is an equally important element to success. Structure without principles is a formula for installed results, but principles without a structure usually generates more rhetoric than realization. With this in mind, I’ll share a reliable sequence based on nearly four decades of engaging in and observing contracting between change practitioners and their clients.
First, it’s important to differentiate the two primary components that comprise sound expectation-setting—contracting and recontracting. The contract is based on an agreement with another person about what you both want to achieve and what you each will do to accomplish that outcome. Such an agreement assumes commitment to follow-through (contracting) while also acknowledging the inevitability that things will shift, which may necessitate adjusting the original pact (recontracting).
A Process for Meaningful Contracting
Contracting is not a one-way directive, nor is the conclusion pre-determined. Rather, successful contracting requires the active and honest engagement of both parties, and may or may not result in an agreement being put in place.
At its simplest, one individual (Participant A) makes a request of another (Participant B) that the second individual agrees to fulfill. The specifications of the contract are confirmed, and the contract is put in place. If, however, B believes that she is unable or unwilling to deliver on the request as proposed, she may offer an alternative. The two participants negotiate until agreement is reached and a contract is established, or until they agree that B cannot/will not fulfill A’s request.
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When Re-Contracting Is Necessary
Once an agreement has been made between A and B, there may be a point when it becomes necessary to recontract, if B determines that she cannot/will not be able to fulfill the original agreement. Just as with contracting, re-contracting requires the active engagement of both participants. At the conclusion of the recontracting exchange, a new agreement may or may not be established.
At any point in the delivery of B’s promise to A, it may become apparent to B that she is no longer able/willing to fulfill the terms of the agreement (due to incorrect assumptions, new priorities emerging, unanticipated problems/opportunities surfacing, inaccurate estimates of needed time/resources, scope of project changes, etc.). If this should happen, it is up to B to propose a revision (usually around things such as the time frame for delivery, the quality of what is delivered, resources used, etc.). This must be done far enough in advance of the due date that the original specs can be fulfilled if A does not agree to modify the original contract. If the amendment is acceptable, a revised contract (recontract) is established. If not, then additional negotiations take place to determine whether other modifications can be agreed upon. If a revised contract cannot be established, it is the responsibility of B to honor the original contract.
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Given the critical role contracting (and recontracting) has in practitioner/client relationships and how basic the mechanics are (be clear about what you promise and then deliver or renegotiate before the due date), it is amazing that poorly established expectations and/or weak follow-through occur as often as they do. Based on my observations, most of the problems change agents experience with sponsors are directly caused or exacerbated by inadequate setting/fulfilling of expectations. Here are but a few of the traps to which practitioners fall prey:
Poor contracting may be due to feeling bullied by or having too much sympathy for the sponsor. The practitioner may be arrogant enough to think it’s unnecessary, or just plain inept at doing it well. Whatever the underlying cause, the results will be the same. In addition to jeopardizing the change project at hand and the relationship with that particular sponsor, the professional change practitioner damages his or her brand.
We can probably all agree that a vital characteristic of being a successful change facilitator is the ability and willingness to explicitly state and agree with sponsors on what each expects from the other. I’ve shared some of my lessons in this area—what about you? What have you learned about contracting with sponsors?
Next: The Burning Platform
The Importance of Contracting
“Half the promises people say were never kept, were never made.” —Edgar Watson Howe
Regardless of the setting or circumstances, a few things consistently distinguish really successful people:
Within the change facilitation community, the skill we’re talking about is often referred to as contracting, which I’ll characterize as “informed expectation-setting combined with a deep sense of obligation for follow-through.” Whether it is with sponsors, other change agents, or the targets who are being asked to accommodate a transition, successful practitioners are highly proficient at forging and then living up to the expectations they set with others.
Despite the importance contracting has in successful implementation, however, many practitioners are not as adept in its application as they need to be.
In this series, I’ll explore some lessons learned from my own experience with contracting as well as some of the pitfalls to be avoided. As always, I invite you to share what you have learned about effective contracting and how it affects the implementation process.
Note: Developing sound contracts is important among change practitioners and between them and the sponsors, agents, and targets with whom they interact. That said, my point of reference in this series will be the contracting that takes place between professional change facilitators and the sponsors they serve. I do this because, of all the relationships with whom we contract, it is the expectations we set with sponsors that have the greatest impact on both the success of the initiatives on which we work and our careers as change practitioners.
It’s Not About Legalities
When professional facilitators of change use the term “contracting,” they aren’t referencing a legally binding document. The word has come to reflect the process used when two or more people reach agreement on their expectations about a situation, and each other, in a serious manner…that is, pursued carefully and reinforced by consequences.
Agreements about what people expect from each other come in all shapes and sizes. Some of these “understandings” are implied and never overtly talked about, while others are explicit and formed through open and extensive dialogue. Here are a few examples:
Contracting reflects the deeper end of these continuums and demands far more due diligence, clarity of specifics, and responsibility for follow-through than the more cursory version of expectation setting.
During the kind of turbulence that is stirred up by dramatic change, the following are daily occurrences:
In such environments, commitments that are honored once made are at a premium. This makes “follow-through” the keystone to our relationships with sponsors. I’m talking about the kind of rock-solid belief in someone that forms the basis for a trusted advisor bond between client and practitioner. Contracting is more than just another facet to providing proper change facilitation—it is the foundation upon which confidence and reliability is built. As such, it is arguably the most essential underpinning of all to the kind of impact we hope to have as change practitioners.
How Hard Can It Be?
The essence of contracting seems straightforward enough—individuals explicitly state what they want to accomplish and what they expect from themselves and from each other. Commitments are then made based on these expectations and everyone delivers on their promises. It doesn’t seem that hard to grasp the basics…right?
Given how critical it is to build and maintain a trusted advisor relationship, it would seem that this might be among the most refined and polished of the skills professional change facilitators display. In fact, generally speaking, contracting is one of the weakest. On a routine basis, change agents have vague, circumspect exchanges with sponsors around five key questions:
If poor contracting takes place at the beginning of a working relationship with sponsors (or at any time during the implementation process), the inhibitors to realization that were already in play will be exacerbated. This will make orchestrating a successful implementation all the more difficult.
One of the elementary tenets of being a change facilitator is at least to do no harm. We all hope we can be a value-add contributor to key transitions, but at a minimum, we can’t become a source of new complications. Improper contracting not only inhibits resolution of the client’s existing challenges, it introduces additional impediments that didn’t exist before.
The Basic Principles of Contracting
Effective contracting does not come about in a serendipitous way. The look and feel of contracting varies by situation and the people involved, but when done well, it is approached with intention and following certain general guidelines related to setting expectations in a relationship. Here are a few examples:
Don’t think of these as “rules” for contracting because, in the change business, rules rigidly followed will eventually undermine your effectiveness. They are principles that commonly apply to expectation-setting situations and which, most of the time, foster success outcomes. With rules, you paint by numbers…that’s what change technicians do. Professional change facilitators who practice the craft work within a fluid context of principles, not hard and fast instructions.
I elaborated on several more tenets for contracting expectations in a previous series of postings. I consider the full list of guidelines as foundational to proper contracting and encourage you to read them.
In my next post, I’ll describe a framework of principles for contracting based on my experience.