Clear contracting is an important process for business success. Contracting involves establishing mutual expectations, negotiating resources (budget, time etc) and developing ground rules or agreements for working together moving forward.
I view contracting as a continuous process in any business interaction involving an interaction/transaction between people. Continuous is an important distinction as many think of contracting as something you do only in the beginning of a business transaction. To my way of thinking, anytime an employee or colleague is taking on a task for you, the principles behind contracting apply.
I had an experience with a vendor this week that offers us a “best practice”-contracting contracting example. I called a well-known software provider for technical support this week (I was in “pain” making the call). From the moment a voice answered (albeit a recorded one), they were “contracting” by setting clear expectations, “your call will be answered in three minutes or less”. From the consumer perspective this is better than being put on what feels like terminal hold. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I wouldn’t be waiting all day for live help.
The first live voice that came on the line began by setting expectations and clarifying their “role” with me on the call, “I am here to first identify/assess your problem and determine who best in our system can help you…” From there she brought onto the line an expert in my “trouble” area. This software technician began by establishing expectations, explaining how much help he could provide (something along the lines of you get two calls with this product for up to x amount of minutes per use.) When he realized that my problem was going to require more time than allotted, he re-negotiated with me after hearing my distress, telling me since it was my first call into their system on a new product, he would take the extra time required to help me. This is important because had he not fixed my problem, I would have returned my product, as my customer expectation was it should work! After he finished walking me through step by step his solution to “fix” my problem, he asked if he had resolved my problem to my satisfaction, which gave me a final opportunity to identify and communicate any “missed” expectations.
Most failures in business are more failures in managing expectations than they are poor performance. The number one way to lose trust with customers, workplace colleagues or your boss is to not meet expectations. Defining realistic expectations up front can save you a lot of trouble, heartache and lost business on the back end.
From my coach’s perspective, most interpersonal workplace or business conflict is a result of missed or unclear expectations and can often be resolved with a return to “contracting” to re-negotiate or re-clarifying expectations when things go off course (preferably while they are still small).
My coach’s tips for contracting:
- Think of sharing expectations as simply communicating what you want to have happen specifically in a future situation. Whenever you are giving a task to an employee or colleague, think of it as a contracting situation.
- Don’t assume expectations are naturally shared or are clear. Take the time to clarify standards and success criteria up front. What does success look like and how will we measure it? Don’t assume that you agree on definition of words like “adequate” or “quality performance”. The same words often mean different things to different people. Spell it out—define your standards for words like clean.
- Paraphrase or summarize when trying to understand expectations, “This is my understanding of your expectations of me on this project…”
- Specify desired outcomes (quantify where possible)—who will do what by when and at what cost. Identify schedule and deliverables.
- Define roles—“My role in the project will be to…” “Your role in this project will be to…” Identify who has decision -making authority and what level of support, and communication (frequency and form: face to face meetings/email/text/reports etc) will be needed.
- Manage meeting expectations by contracting at the beginning of the meeting around how much time we have agreed to meet, the meeting objectives and/or agenda etc.
- Lastly, ask if anything is unclear or confusing before walking away.