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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Typical Pitfalls

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:

  1. They engage change work without even attempting a discussion of desired outcomes, means for achieving them, how the agent and sponsor will perform their roles and relate to each other, and/or the consequences for both if they don’t live up to the expectations being set.
  2. They are intimidated by the sponsor’s personality, rank within the organization, sense of urgency about starting work on the project right away, etc. to the point that, after trying, and failing, to have a substantive contracting discussion, they begin work on the project anyway.
  3. They feel unsure about what their role, or the sponsor’s, should be so they dodge anything specific about either.
  4. They doubt that the sponsor will agree to what role he or she should play, so they avoid the discussion.
  5. They conduct the right expectation-setting discussions but use, or allow the sponsor to use, vague, equivocal, implicit, abstract, convoluted language when discussing expectation specifics.
  6. They attempt to practice the craft in an environment where change facilitators are treated as “order takers” and are expected to do as they are told.
  7. They overextend themselves by agreeing to more commitments than they can realistically deliver.
  8. They think it is unnecessary to be precise and definitive with the sponsor for one of two reasons:
    – They are both professionals and can “figure it out”
    – They have worked together before and believe they can bypass the formalities of explicitly discussing expectations
  9. They are seduced by how well-intentioned or busy the sponsor is and avoid saying anything about his or her unfulfilled promises
  10. They fail to deliver on what they agreed to do and/or complain about not benefiting from what they didn’t agree to do.
  11. They forget that even well-established contracts are vulnerable because they were formulated and agreed to during uninformed optimism, meaning people will later have second thoughts.
  12. They agree to expectations without having all the relevant information.
  13. They consent to expectations under duress because they feel they have no option but to agree.
  14. They ask the sponsor to agree to something he or she has no control over.
  15. They agree to something they don’t have control over.
  16. They fail to tell the sponsor as soon as they see that their ability/willingness to fulfill promises is in jeopardy.
  17. They fail to give the sponsor feedback when he or she does not live up to promises made, or unilaterally changes what is expected of the practitioners.
  18. They misinterpret a request for recontracting as a sign of weak commitment.
  19. They misinterpret weak commitment as merely a request to recontract.
  20. They fail to ask to renegotiate expectations early enough so they can still meet the original obligation if the request is turned down.

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? 

Go to the beginning of the series.

Next: The Burning Platform