By Stewart Levine

Crafting effective agreements is an elegant way of arriving at a shared vision, either as the final step of resolving conflict, or at the beginning of a new project, transaction or relationship.
When you think about “agreements,” you probably think of difficult negotiations, and long legal documents. Your focus goes to the question of how you can protect yourself from the “What if’s” of a situation. A more useful way to see agreements is as:

  • establishing joint vision;
  • the end product of an effective conflict-resolution process; or
  • as the foundation for success of any new team, partnership or relationship. This is true whether it is with your business partner, colleagues, work teams, joint ventures, or your company and its employees or customers.

Collaboration, the coordinated activities of people working together is the foundation of any accompliment. Successful collaboration is like dancing, but often you have different ideas about the steps in the dance. These differences can lead to greater synergy, or they can lead to breakdown. Because agreements define how you coordinate, excellent results depend on clear agreements. The art of crafting effective agreements is the leverage that increases the likelihood of obtaining desired outcomes.

There’s an important distinction between agreements for results and the familiar “agreements for protection: which are negotiated from an adversarial perspective. The latter shift the focus from what you want to create, to what can go wrong. They foster an adversarial climate in new relationships, when you desire collaboration and joint vision. Protective agreements have diminishing value in our complex transactional milieu.

Mastering the Art of Agreement

Each of the following elements is an essential part of an effective agreement. Use it as a template for constructing agreements. It’s useful to reach an understanding about each element. The process is very important because it’s the beginning of a new working relationship.

Intent. What’s the big picture of what you intend to accomplish together? share the vision of what you’re doing together. This provides a framework to hand the details on.
Specific vision. A joint enterprise works best when everyone is working toward the same specific goals. The clearer the desired outcomes, the more likely you’ll attain them. The greater the detail, the more likely it will happen.
Roles. Clearly define everyone’s duties and responsibilities. What is each person responsible for, and what will they commit to make it happen?

Promises/commitments to action. The agreement contains clear promises so everyone knows who will do what. When commitments to take action are specific you can determine if the actions are sufficient.
All promises must have specific deadlines for task completion, and the time period the agreement will be in force. By when will you do this, and by when will you do that?
Value of exchange. Who gets what for what? Is the exchange satisfactory? This must be clearly understood, and everyone must be satisfied or they will sabotage the transaction.
Measurements of satisfaction.The evidence that advises everyone that they achieved their objectives must be specified in clear, direct and measurable terms over which there can be no disagreement. This element is critical because it eliminates conflict about the ultimate question: Did you accomplish what you set out to do?

Because agreements define how you coordinate,
excellent results depend on clear agreements.

Concerns and fears. Bringing unspoken difficulties to the surface provides the opportunity to anticipate and minimize the breakdowns you know will happen. The discussion will deepen the partnership, or let you know this is not a partnership you want to be a part of.
Renegotiation. Circumstances change, and you must put in place a mechanism to address the new conditions. Being realistic about this at the beginning enables the relationship to evolve and prosper. No matter how optimistic and clear you are, it will become necessary to renegotiate.
Dissolution. Anyone who feels imprisoned in a transaction, partnership or relationship will not make their maximum contribution. It’s imperative to provide everyone with a way out–an exit strategy they can follow with dignity.
Consequences. Although you may not want to be the police, it is important to agree on consequences for anyone who breaks their promises.
Dispute Resolution. Acknowledging that conflicts and disagreements arise as a matter of course as people work together is essential. Knowing that this will happen, and establishing the attitude of resolution and a process that leads to a new agreement makes it easier to resolve disputes.
Management. A point person must take responsibility for ensuring the agreement is honored, and intended results are obtained.
Agreement. Work on the agreement until you are satisfied that you “have an agreement, or not.”
Fun. Make a commitment to embrace the future as a new opportunity that can be enjoyed. The presence of this attitude lubricates the collaboration. Laughter makes enjoyable what is sometimes an unforgiving world.

Benefits of Agreement

Good agreements can impact your work and life in the following ways:

Conflict resolution. Having a process in place provides the peace of knowing a path to resolution has been established. You can invent a new framework for their future. Non-adversarial ways of bringing closure to emotional relationships leave fewer scars and better soil for new beginnings.
Joint ventures. The level of success increases because detailed joint vision is articulated.
Employment relationships. You can participate in shaping and customizing your working relationships. Mutuality is fostered, resentment is eliminated, and “buy-in” is assured.
Teams. Managers, department heads and team leaders can use agreements to keep their units on the same target. The capacity to articulate a shared vision, and establish clear conditions of satisfaction, is crucial to this task. It is operative both within and between departments and companies.
Productivity of work groups. The work becomes primary, not the “politics” of relationships. Joint vision and the tactical moves to achieve objectives become the focus. Internal chatter is quitted.

The energy that was locked in conflict is available for creativity.

Creativity and innovation. The absence of hostile conflict enables clear thinking essential to Relationships with vendors. Clear agreements will make vendors an integral part of the team. Everyone understands their contribution to results. The clarity of promises and conditions of satisfaction established with providers is crucial to the success of any business venture. It impacts profitability and reputation.
Customer/client satisfaction. You are clear about tasks and free of “chatter”–you can concentrate on the customer. improved task accomplishment. The energy that was locked in conflict is available for creativity.
Labor relations. Unions become part of the team, partners in producing results, part of the virtual organization.
Diversity issues.
People see the ways in which they are the same, and want the same things. Differences are acknowledged in the process of crafting agreements. As individual concerns are expressed and heard, people are “legitimized.” Groups get the benefit of individual genius.
Professionals and salespeople. Enhanced ability to build relationships by establishing joint vision of desired results.
Mood and attitude.When you’re engaged in designing the specifics of your participation you are a willing player, determining your contribution. If you’re motivated you’re less resentful, more engaged and happier.

Good agreements are the best strategy for preventing conflict. Good luck with this new perspective on agreements! I’m sure it will improve your results.

This article is adapted from the book, Getting to Resolution and appeared in Innovative Leader, May 1998