At the important beginning of any successful organization development project is the development of a set of agreements that will 1) identify initial desired outcomes, 2) identify the process for achieving the outcomes, and 3) signify that the organization development practitioner and potential client want to work together.

Working together effectively is always a matter of people agreeing to coordinate using their individual energies toward common goals. Lots of species work together–ants, wolves, bees, etc.

Only humans can make agreements that result in the complex cooperative behavior that has allowed us, the pound-or-pound the weakest animal species, to dominate the planet through cooperation.

Where we do not have agreements or our agreements have been ineffective, working together becomes problematic and contentious.

In an organization development project, the agreements between the client and the practitioner to work together get the ball rolling. The success of these initial agreements or contracts paves the way for the development of the agreements that will resolve dysfunctions and support movement to team and organization goals.

Why Agreements Fail

Many teams and organizations suffer from ineffective agreements. Looking at why agreements are ineffective will help us understand what we must do to make them work. Here are four types of agreement failures:

Assumed Agreements

We often assume agreement where there is none. This can lead to the upsets of unmet expectations. I used to assume that clients would speak freely in team meetings. After one such team meeting, the client was angry at me for not countering statements he said were wrong.

I said how was I to know which to counter and why didn’t he speak up. He said he thought he wasn’t supposed to. I had assumed he would speak up whenever he wanted to. After all, it was his team, my ego argued. My assumption of agreement caused this project to fail.

Inexplicit agreements

Agreements can be fuzzy and vague. In my early career as a management trainer, I accepted a request to build a team’s confidence. I thought I did a great job, only to have to deal with another angry client after her team with brand new confidence confronted her about her behavior.

Build a “confident team” meant different things to each of us. Another failed project.

Half-hearted Agreements

Half-hearted agreements lead to half-hearted execution. If we want high-quality results, go for agreements where the parties fully believe in the agreement’s efficacy or at least agree to fully and proactively support it.

If full commitment is what a project needs, do not accept agreements that seem from duress or resignation. Insist on continuing to negotiate until the agreement generates positive energy.

Agreements that Are Not Kept

Agreements that are not kept are worthless. To prevent broken agreements, two sub-agreements are useful:

  1. Agree to renegotiate the moment either party thinks the agreement or some part of it may no longer be workable or desirable. Renegotiating before a problematic agreement derails the project is essential.
  2. Decide together what will happen when the agreement is kept and what will happen if either does not keep an agreement. This need not be confrontational. A conversation about positive and negative consequences relative to each party often unearths the need for further revision of the agreement.

Avoiding failed agreements calls for explicit requests for agreement that the parties involved negotiate to the satisfaction of all.

The Three Key Areas of Client- Practitioner Agreements

There are three areas for agreement that organization development practitioners must generate with their potential clients. They are intention, connection, and ego management.


The client’s initial intentions typically involve relieving some point of pain within the organization. Our job is to discuss those pain points and desired outcome(s) to an initial and provisional level of explicitness. Only provisional, since the data about the issues at this point is only the client’s perspective.

As practitioners, our intention is to help our clients improve their team and organizations through identifying problems and solve them at their root cause. Not accepting the client’s statement of the problem and solution is a necessity.

Through discussion, these two intentions hopefully merge into explicit agreements satisfactory to both.

The discussion about intentions must also result in agreement about collaboration and census-building as the primary strategies used to achieve the intentions.

A final aspect of contracting around intention is establishing roles and responsibilities. The client must agree to being the project leader. Many clients assume you will be the project leader. This is enticing. But unless the client leads and learns during the project’s process, the team or organization is likely to revert to dysfunction once you leave.

The practitioner’s role is to be coach, process designer, group facilitator, and conflict resolver as we work toward agreed intentions.

Connection Quality

The quality of partnership and trust between the practitioner and client is important to the project’s success, as in any relationship. Given the importance of most organization development projects, maintaining a high level of communication between client and practitioner is vital.

Build and safeguard a high quality of relationship through explicitly agreeing to communicate with other in the following ways:

  • Direct, straightforward, and honest discussions.
  • Listening that gives full attention to the person speaking. This involves not just hearing the words, but seeking to understanding the emotions and intentions behind them.
  • Providing feedback to ensure the relationship and the project’s process stay on target.

Creating agreements about the quality of relationship may seem unusual. Many relationships would survive and thrive much longer if the development of such agreements was normal rather than unusual.

Ego Management

An area of agreement that is even more unusual is ego management. Ego is our sense of identity and esteem. When our egos are strong, we are clear and realistic about our strengths and weaknesses. We have a low need for external validation and little need to prove ourselves.

When our egos are weak (which comes and goes to us all), the need to be right, to not be wrong, can be overwhelming. When our ego is weak, we may also want to hide in the shadows and not rock the boat from fear of getting kick out of it. Self-expression at a low ebb.

Both the client and you could experience phases of weak ego while working on a project. An explicit agreement that the person with the stronger ego at the moment would remind the other that they are okay and to refocus on the project’s objectives is very useful. Useful for the individuals, the relationship, and the project.

Acknowledgement of how weak ego gets triggered often occurs in the ego discussion, enriching it and developing deeper trust.

Negotiating for ego management is not part of everyday conversation, nor need it be. When our goal is to have a successful project, allowing egos to derail it would be foolish, though altogether too human.

Two Last Items


So many external practitioners initially have the idea of charging clients what they think they are worth, which typically isn’t much. Fortunately, what a client will pay has nothing at all to do with the practitioner’s view of practitioner’s worth and all to do with what they believe they can afford and are willing to pay.

My process for determining a daily rate is to research the client’s organization’s value and annual revenue, check with other consultants who may have worked with that client or similar for what they’ve charged, then quote a price higher to the client.

When a client’s response to my price is, “That sounds reasonable.” That tells me I left money on the table. I prefer for the client to gasp at the amount so that we can negotiate to what they will pay.

Of course, I always have in mind the minimum daily rate I will accept. I also will be flexible based on my personal interest in the client, their organization, and the time I have available.

Bottom line: give your client the opportunity to pay you well.

Next Steps

If negotiations have succeeded, the last step in the initial contracting process is agreeing on what each is going to do next to get the project moving. For the practitioner, the next step is to schedule one-on-one interviews with the members of the client’s team.

The client’s next step is to provide support for scheduling the interviews and to let those to be interviewed know about the interviews and their purpose.

Negotiating agreements with clients that are explicit, understood fully, mutually satisfactory, and cover so many areas may seem daunting and a lot of work. It is, however, the work of the successful organization development practitioner.

Keep in mind that sometimes there is no agreement about one or more of the areas described. The agreement that is needed then is not to partner and to move on.

Successful projects depend a great deal on how well you and your client are in sync. In sync and leverages your full set of knowledge and skills in organization development, the most powerful technology extant for creating change in human systems.

Such is the path to successful projects and a reputation that will bring you new clients.


Michael F. Broom, Pd.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems,

is an organization development psychologist of 45 years of

experience with all kinds of people and organizations.

He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game.
Michael Broom smiling

Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.

Contact Dr. Broom for a free hour consultation at

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