Contracting for the Impact We Intend
Effective leaders need followers to execute strategies and tactics if they are to accomplish their visions and goals. Too often misunderstandings and miscommunications hamper effective execution. Good contracting can prevent these situations from happening.
Contracting is building explicit agreements of shared understanding that satisfy all parties. Such agreements are specific about who is to do what by when. In this manner leaders can prevent the upsets of unmet expectations and thwarted intentions that waste time and energy. The most effective contracts are dynamic and iterative and change as circumstances and needs change.
A good contract need not be in writing. We call them contracts to emphasize the need for them to be explicit and negotiated until everything is mutually understood and satisfying for all parties. Too often we assume others understand, when they don’t. We take silence as consent, which it isn’t. When we take for granted that there is understanding and agreement, we set ourselves up to waste valuable time and energy that can be saved through contracting.
There are three areas to focus on when creating effective agreements. They are the same areas as the three keys of Conscious Use of Self:
- The impact we intend to make
- The connections we need to succeed
- The egos we need to manage
This article will cover building for agreements about the impact we want to make. The next two articles will cover contracting for healthy relationships and contracting for good ego-management.
Contracting for the Impact We Want to Make
Intention involves getting explicitly clear about the outcomes we want. When the CEO says, “We want to be the best” everyone nods their heads. But does everyone have the same idea about what “the best” looks like? Or a manager says to an under-performing employee, “You’ve got to do better” and the employee says she will. But, does “better” mean the same to the employee as the manager? In both cases, the answer to either is likely to be no. The parties will only have assumptions about what was meant in contrast to what was understood. In either case, if they are not on the same page, the “agreement” is a mirage and likely to become a conflict.
Agreements are best when they describe our intentions in terms of the outcomes we desire. Outcomes that are observable or measurable that can tell us when we have succeeded. We need that level of explicitness to know when we have a valid agreement. As an example, we’ll use the case of Hiram Baines. He was the lead executive of a major hospital system and asked me to help with his strategic plan. The plan had been in place for six months with little progress toward implementation. Hiram wanted to know why. He had invested a lot of time in developing the plan with his team to become the #1 hospital in their tri-state area. I interviewed each team member. Half of the executives were lukewarm about the goal. Of those who liked the goal, there were differing ideas about what success would look like.
Hearing that, Hiram was upset. He had assumed there was agreement about the goal and the plan to get there. He had seen several head nods, and he took the silence of others as consent. Silence, however, most often means just the opposite. I had learned that no one wanted to risk speaking against his plan. That was a problem all by itself.
After some pointed coaching, he got over his upset and agreed to another retreat to redevelop the plan with a mind toward being more explicit. We took the first of two days to work through all the team’s issues with Hiram. The second day they crafted a new, more specific goal of becoming the #1 trauma center in the tri-state area within three years as measured by US News and World Report. Not everyone was totally happy, but we got to a strong consensus with little trouble.
Consensus decision-making has the reputation of being time-consuming. It is, however, the decision-making process of choice for getting to explicit agreements that will optimize buy-in. And, it needn’t be time consuming if we follow the steps listed below.
Here’s how to get to a consensus without taking a lot of time:
- Be clear upfront that decisions will be made by consensus and review the following process with those involved.
- When a topic that needs a decision has been thoroughly discussed, and most of the participants are leaning toward a specific option, it’s time to see if a consensus exists. Restate the popular option and check to be sure that everyone understands it the same way. This leads to greater explicitness and clarity. Be sure to check with everyone.
- Once the option is clear to everyone, check with each person, one at a time, to see if they are in favor of the proposed decision.
- Ask each person not in favor to state the reasons for their opposition. Be sure that each person feels heard. This is very important: feeling heard alone can turn a negative response to a positive. Also, the group may improve the proposed idea from the information provided.
- After each dissenting statement, ask if s/he is willing to proactively help implement the proposition even though the person is not in full agreement with it. This distinguishes consensus decision-making from unanimous decision-making! Unanimous decision-making is the process that can take forever. Consensus slips into unanimous decision-making when someone or the group tries to convince the dissenting person to change their mind. Do not allow that to happen!
- Ninety-five times out of a hundred the dissenting person will say something like, “Sure, I’m a team-player.” Then move on to the next dissenter if there is one.
- If someone feels so strongly about their objections that they are not willing to help make the proposed decision work, ask the group to further consider those objections. This is rare, but when it happens, the objection often turns out to be an important one. In the very rare case that the dissenting person refuses to join the consensus, then there is a problem of some other sort to identify and resolve.
When followed with rigor, the frustration and time-consumption often associated with consensus decision-making will disappear.
Be sure to check that everyone’s agreement is whole-hearted. Hesitations and odd body language can serve as signals for further probing until clarity and full agreement is achieved.
Contracting for an intended impact also includes achieving clarity and buy-in for the strategies and tactics to be used to achieve the goals. With Hiram’s hospital, they chose a health care strategy that is becoming popular, “the patient comes second.” Check out the book, Patients Come Second by Britt Berrett and Paul Spiegelman, if this is of interest.
Contracting with specific individuals to be responsible for follow-through on specific strategies and tactics is also important. Without it, we can miss deadlines and tasks can slip through the cracks with no one to hold accountable. This part of contracting should include who will do what, by when, and whose help is needed. Many organizations have accountability problems. They include government agencies and successful organizations that can afford the waste. Other organizations learn to contract well for who is to do what by when, or they go out of business.
Stay tuned for the second article about contracting to learn about agreements for maintaining healthy relationships. It’s something we don’t think about very much. In the third article we’ll learn about contracting for help in managing egos. You may not have one, but most of us do.
We think too little about explicit contracting. When we give more time and attention to it, the probability of effective execution increases. Contracting is at the heart of effective relationships which is at the heart of effective projects, teams, and organizations.