by Stewart Levine

All successful consulting engagements happen because we collaborate successfully with others. Collaboration requires agreements, which may be expressed (spoken or written) or implied (assumed.) Consultants and clients all are better served if they have clear agreements that reflect their road map to the expected results, a clear understanding of the process, and�most important�a clear statement of what may change as work proceeds.

The tag line from the old Quaker State motor oil commercial, ââ?¬Å?You can pay me now, or you can pay me later,ââ?¬Â holds true when thinking about agreements between consultants and clients. Too oftenââ?¬â?especially in executive coaching, process consultation, and certain OD interventionsââ?¬â?clients and consultants are off and running, everyone with their own vision of the destination and how to get there, without taking the time to make explicit the implicit agreement they think they have. Missing is the clarity necessary to minimize the potential for conflict. Like the Quaker State warning of engine damage if we donââ?¬â?¢t do the preventive work of changing the oil in our carââ?¬â?¢s engine, I sound the warning here that conflict is inevitable in consulting relationships, but the cost and damage it causes can be prevented with a good, up-front agreement.

We all know that. But often we don�t take the necessary steps because we think we need long legal documents to protect ourselves from things we don�t want to happen. We are better off shifting our focus to the results we want to achieve and away from the calamities we want to avoid. Conflict often arises because we don�t craft explicit agreements that create a meeting of mind and heart with people we want to collaborate with in our professional relationships.

All too often, the process of forming the agreement is seen as an adversarial process that both parties try to win. I call these ââ?¬Å?agreements for protection,ââ?¬Â a ââ?¬Å?we versus themââ?¬Â negotiating process in which each party tries to gain the advantage. The negotiation is not intended to express a clear joint vision with a road map to desired results.

I recommend a fundamental shift from adversarial win/lose negotiating that focuses on fixing a problem to a joint visioning process that focuses on satisfying everyone. The idea is to shift our thinking from ââ?¬Å?you or meââ?¬Â to ââ?¬Å?you and me.ââ?¬Â

Ten essential elements must be discussed in order to create a vision and a map to get the results we want. Each of these elements is presented below along with examples of a results orientation versus a protection orientation.

Element #1. Intent & Vision

Results: Focus on what you want to happen.

Protection: Focus on all the ââ?¬Å?what ifââ?¬â?¢sââ?¬Â that could go wrong

This is the big picture of what we want. The clearer and more specific the desired outcomes, the more likely we will succeed as visualized. We can tell what will happen in our life by paying attention to our dominant thoughts. If we focus on the calamities, we increase the chances that bad things will happen. What we really want in all of our collaborations is for everyone to concentrate on desired outcomes�the best possible vision of the future. That greatly improves the chances of creating what we want to happen. For example, when we bring on a new hire, it is more useful to visualize them leaping tall buildings than to focus on the mistakes they might make.

Element #2. Roles

Results: Making sure someone has responsibility for all critical tasks. Protection: Narrowly defining responsibility to limit accountability and liability.

Roles encompass the duties, responsibilities, and commitment of everyone we need in order to achieve the desired results. Making sure we have what we need to get the job done without anything slipping through the cracks is a critical aspect of planning any project. We want clarity about who can be counted on, and for what. We donââ?¬â?¢t want anyone saying, ââ?¬Å?thatââ?¬â?¢s not my job!ââ?¬Â While some people always will tend to avoid risk, the fear of making mistakes is no longer the powerful a driver it once was. Many of us have learned that innovation requires experimentation and that in order to encourage risk taking, the heart of entrepreneurship, we canââ?¬â?¢t punish mistakes.

Element #3. Promises

Results: Contribution�committing wholeheartedly to doing your part, not out of coercion, but from belief in the project�s mission.

Protection: Doing the least; hiding behind qualifying words that cloud and condition what you are promising.

Specific commitments tell us which actions will get us to the desired results and which actions are missing. Who will be doing what? Promises serve as a checkpoint�if everyone delivers what they promise, will the desired results happen? In the sample Agreement for Results (see Sidebar), promises are made about securing financing, sales goals, producing collateral material, and time frames for creative design deadlines.

Element #4. Time/Value

Results: Clear time commitments and satisfaction with the value given and received.

Protection: The most for the least.

Every agreement must include clearly stated ââ?¬Å?by whenââ?¬â?¢sââ?¬Â and for how long the promises will be kept. Is the exchange fair and does it provide enough incentive? Everyone needs to be satisfied that what they get from the project is worth what they are putting in. If people are not getting what they think they deserve, they become resentfulââ?¬â?and resentful participants do not produce extraordinary results as people committed to a vision do when they think they are being taken care of.

Element #5. Measurements of Satisfaction

Results: Goals that inspire and state clearly and measurably what is expected.

Protection: Qualifiers to argue from and use as excuses.

The evidence that we achieved our objectives must be clear, direct, and measurable in order to eliminate conflict about whether we accomplished what we began. For some, it�s frightening to make a commitment that will hold them accountable to a promise, so they look for an out. We need objective measures no one can question.

Element #6. Concerns and Fears

Results: Compassion for any anxiety-producing concerns and risks seen and felt by a partner.

Protection: Game-playing; an edge to take strategic advantage of an adversary�s weakness.

Unspoken difficulties need to be expressed and the fear behind them addressed. This deepens understanding of what we are taking on and the partnership we are creating. It is a way of responding to ââ?¬Å?internal chatterââ?¬Â that might inhibit full participation, and it solidifies partnership by addressing what is lingering in peopleââ?¬â?¢s minds. Addressing concerns and fears enables us to identify risks and to make a clear choice about moving forward. We should be willing to accept a deal based on its fairness to all concerned.

Element #7. Renegotiation

Results: How to make this work as unanticipated changes take place.

Protection: How to use change to one�s advantage.

No matter how optimistic and clear and agreement is, it will become necessary to renegotiate promises and conditions of satisfaction because things change�this we can be sure of. Because the quality of working relationships is crucial for achieving desired results, it is essential to keep communicating when something needs attention. A commitment to renegotiation requires ongoing learning and staying in the mind-set of solving a mutual problem, even when things happen that no one anticipated. This is the principle that drives every learning organization and for staying in the relationships that are key to successful projects.

Element #8. Consequences

Results: Reminders of the significance of promises and failure.

Protection: Threats of punishment.

It is important to keep people mindful of promises they make and focused on delivering promised performance. It is equally important to realize the connection between expectations and the failure to perform. Becoming conscious of that gap is a motivator. Consequences are not about punishment; they remind us of the loss of an unrealized vision and the sanctity of our promises.

Element #9. Conflict Resolution

Results: What will get us back on track quickly.

Protection: How the resolution process can be used for leverage or advantage.

Conflicts and disagreements will arise. Agree to an ââ?¬Å?attitude of resolutionââ?¬Â and a given resolution process. It is useful to embrace conflict as something that is expected and to view it as an opportunity for creatively dealing with unanticipated specifics. Understanding the magnitude of the transaction cost of remaining in conflictââ?¬â?and the cost of the associated lossââ?¬â?is key. Having a process in place is essential to success.

Element #10. Agreement

Results: Do I trust enough to be in an open, ongoing collaboration?

Protection: Can I get out without getting hurt? Is there an opportunity for a windfall?

When you have reflected on items 1ââ?¬â??9, ask yourself: Has the process produced enough trust so you can say ââ?¬Å?Letââ?¬â?¢s do it; Iââ?¬â?¢m comfortable moving forward with you and sense weââ?¬â?¢ll be able to work things out as we go forwardââ?¬Â? Has the deep dialogue we have exchanged produced what Max DePree calls a relationship based on covenantââ?¬â?a heartfelt connection and commitment to people and results? Do not move into action unless and until you can say yes and can commit to embrace the future as an opportunity to be enjoyed.


We can become much better at setting expectations and managing the consulting engagement, thereby greatly improving relationships and repeat business. We can better serve our clients if we model the best way for them to begin engagement with their customers and clients. As we demonstrate true collaboration versus confrontation, clients will see the value of bringing this mind-set to all organizational relationships. As they do, consultants who have mastered negotiating ââ?¬Å?agreements for resultsââ?¬Â will be well positioned to help their clients do the same.

Results Versus Protection

  • INTENT & VISION: desired outcome vs. ââ?¬Å?what ifââ?¬â?¢sââ?¬Â
  • ROLES: taking responsibility vs. limiting accountability
  • PROMISES: commitment vs. qualifiers and conditioners
  • TIME & VALUE: ââ?¬Å?by whenââ?¬â?¢sââ?¬Â and fair return vs. most for least
  • MEASUREMENTS OF SATISFACTION: inspiring goals vs. excuses and escapes
  • CONCERNS AND FEARS: compassion and understanding vs. edge for advantage
  • RENEGOTIATION: dealing with unknowns and changes vs. striking a hard bargain
  • CONSEQUENCES: reminder of promises vs. punishment
  • CONFLICT RESOLUTION: getting back on track vs. exacting some premium
  • AGREEMENT: trusting enough vs. looking for possible escape

Stewart Levine ( is the founder of ResolutionWorks. Prior, he spent ten years practicing law and then was an award-winning marketing executive at AT&T. He is the author of Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict into Collaboration (Berrett-Koehler 1998) and The Book of Agreement: 10 Essential Elements for Getting The Results You Want (Berrett-Koehler, 2002).


Here�s an agreement I prepared for resolving management conflicts between six professionals who purchased an office building together. It is a simple agreement, but it clearly demonstrates how an agreement for results both details the project and sets the context.


Dear ________:

Thank you for choosing me to help you resolve the conflicts you have been experiencing in the management of your office building. I will do my best to honor that trust. I have done my best to express our conversations in the following letter agreement. Please let me know if you would like to make any changes, corrections, clarifications, or additions.

1.INTENT & VISION: It is our intention to resolve all conflicts that have come up related to the joint ownership and operation of your shared office building. I understand that it is your vision to have in place an agreement that will enable you to smoothly and efficiently share the space harmoniously, without conflict or divisiveness, so that you can devote all of your time to practicing your profession.

2.ROLES: Stewart will be the facilitator responsible for guiding you through the ââ?¬Å?Process of Agreement and Resolution.ââ?¬Â You will be active participants seeking agreement and resolution.


I promise to:

  • conduct a process called ââ?¬Å?Managing by Agreementââ?¬Â
  • speak to each one of you by telephone before the day of the process
  • give each of you the opportunity to share all concerns you have
  • work with you from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. or later if necessary
  • deliver an agreement that sets forth the resolution of all conflict and an agreement that will state your future relationship and the process by which you will run the office building
  • meet with you for Ã?½ day(s) sixty days after the initial meeting to monitor your results, and address any existing conflict
  • address any future conflict and modify your agreement, if needed
  • meet, confer, and provide follow-up coaching for you as needed.

You promise to:

  • prepare for the meeting by listing your concerns, conflicts, and the behaviors of others you find unacceptable
  • acknowledge the multiple costs to everyone of the current conflicts
  • come to the facilitation and fully participate
  • listen to what others have to say and reflect on your own behavior and how it might be contributing to the difficulty you are having
  • authentically tell your truth about the situation
  • be willing to be educated by what your hear
  • be willing to change your behavior in response to what you hear
  • abide by the new agreement that is reached
  • let go of the conflict, forgive your partners for their past actions, and step into a new era of relationship.

4.TIME & VALUE: We each promise to put in the time needed to get to resolution and stay resolved. We each understand it is an ongoing and never-ending process. You agree to pay me $10,000 for the services listed above. You acknowledge that is a fair price for the services provided. You agree to pay $5,000 upon agreement; $2,500 on being presented with your new agreement; and the final $2,500 at the time of our follow-up meeting.

5.MEASUREMENTS OF SATISFACTION: Your partnership is operating without significant conflict. More important, you have the ability to quickly resolve conflict as it surfaces. You develop the ability to quietly smile to yourself when you recall how bad it was.

6.CONCERNS AND FEARS: My concern is that you will not devote the time needed to resolve future conflicts as they arise, and that you will not move forward in good faith. You all have expressed the fear that the others are not capable of changing and that you do not know if you are truly capable of letting go of the past.

7.RENEGOTIATION: We agree that even though we have been diligent in expressing all contingencies we can think of, things likely will arise that we did not anticipate. We agree to modify this agreement as needed to meet then-current realities.

8.CONSEQUENCES: We both understand that the failure to reach agreement will result in significant financial loss on your jointly owned building; the disruption to your individual practices of having to move; and the loss of having to leave a building you all like very much.

9.CONFLICT RESOLUTION: If we have any disagreement about our work together we agree to talk about it. If we cannot resolve it we agree to select a facilitator to help us get to resolution.

10.AGREEMENT: By agreeing to all of what is said in this letter we have an agreement to move forward.

I look forward to the opportunity of working with you.


Stewart Levine

Agreed and Accepted
Name Date

Notice that even though this is a legally binding contract to provide services, it does not seem like an imposing formal agreement. In most situations, a simple letter confirming what is understood and desired, what is promised, and how much will be paid is much more constructive than a formal-looking document. The content gets the job done, the impact is much different.