Managing By Agreement

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The Law of Agreement
by Stewart Levine
November 2004

I think of Laws and Principles as universal truths that are very difficult to refute or disprove. The Law of Agreement, and the Principles of Agreement, is the foundational truths on which collaboration is based. Like gravity, they are simple and obvious truisms that although usually unspoken, are always present. The challenge is to stay mindful of them, and to live by them. It’s very important to remember that although the Law and Principles are simple to understand, they are not always easy to live by.

LAW of AGREEMENT

EVERY COLLABORATION IS ESTABLISHED IN LANGUAGE BY MAKING IMPLICIT (TALKING TO YOURSELF ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK THE AGREEMENT IS) AND EXPLICIT (DISCUSSING THE AGREEMENT WITH OTHERS) AGREEMENTS

When we work with someone, take a job with a large organization, get married, buy someone’s product, or go out for the evening with a friend, it involves coordinating with him or her. Sometimes we craft long and detailed agreements with other people, such as professional sports contracts, business partnerships or executive compensation agreements. People hire high powered lawyers to conjure up all the things that might go wrong, and all the contingencies the future might bring. They do their best to protect us from the “what ifs” – what if this goes wrong, or what if that goes wrong. They try to make explicit all that they know. Unfortunately, what often happens in the name of protection is that they foster an adversarial relationship. That is the opposite of what a new venture needs.

The Principles:

1. THE SOURCE OF PRODUCTIVITY AND FULFILLMENT IN PERSONAL
AND PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIPS IS EFFECTIVE COLLABORATION. THE MORE SEAMLESS THE COLLABORATION, THE STRONGER THE RESULTS.

When you look at your life, and the culture you live in, evidence abounds of this truth. You can’t have an organization without the collaborative efforts of many. The arts of management and leadership are about marshalling and coordinating others’ efforts. It is like conducting a great symphony. This is also true for marriages, friendships, and families. In any collaboration, effective end results flow from tight coordination that produces high levels of synergy.

Think of the importance of effective coordination between yourself and a spouse in a highly functional marriage. Imagine that same level of collaboration in a business partnership, work team, department, or branch of an organization. When you have effective coordination you can feel the quadratic expansion of productivity. This is called synergy. It is dependent on the clarity of developing a shared vision and agreements we have with others.

2. WE WORK AND LIVE IN A “SEA” (CONTEXT) OF AGREEMENTS.

You can view your life as a series of agreements. As you go through your day try viewing your life through the “lens of agreement.” From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep your life is governed by the set of expectations you have as a result of the explicit and implicit agreements between you and others. You have agreements with all of the following:

3. WE NEVER LEARNED THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF AN EFFECTIVE AGREEMENT

Although it is hard to believe because collaboration is such a fundamental life skill, our early schooling did not include a course in effective collaboration. We never learned how to construct an effective agreement. The only way most of us get better at expressing agreements is because we suffered in the past because one of our agreements was insufficient. This makes us cautious, and sometimes mistrustful, about future collaborations, so we try to get clarity around the things that caused us trouble in the past. Unfortunately, unless we shift our way of thinking as result of our learning or experience, we just get more paranoid and protective as time goes by.

4. CLEAR AGREEMENTS ARE EMPOWERING. THEY EXPRESS A SHARED VISION, AND A ROAD MAP TO DESIRED RESULTS.

When an agreement incorporates the needs, desires and vision that each of the people involved is concerned about, you have the opportunity to express a powerful shared vision for the project. What is this collaboration about? What is the detailed picture of the result that will make everyone pleased with the outcome? It’s not about you OR me; it’s about you AND me! A clear agreement provides a road map to that vision. It details what everyone promises to do to achieve the desired result. The agreement functions to manage the “project,” as a map that empowers and enrolls everyone in producing the joint vision. Think of the joint vision as a composite of everyone’s individual vision – the vision is a “ them AND me,” not a “them OR me.”

5. CLEAR AGREEMENTS IMPROVE THE CHANCES FOR SATISFACTION. THEY SET UP THE CONDITIONS THAT PRODUCE DELIGHTED CLIENTS, CUSTOMERS, TEAMMATES, COLLEAGUES, VENDORS AND FAMILY MEMBERS.

A huge amount of the suffering in this world takes place because of unclear, unarticulated implicit agreements. In unclear situations people don’t know what to do because they don’t know the results expected of them, and what they can expect of others. This causes fear and anxiety. If we took the time at the beginning to express exactly where we were headed, and the route of travel, everyone could rest confidently knowing the value they were expected to deliver, and that the value that others would deliver would take care of their needs. Everyone would know exactly what to do to fulfill their responsibilities for producing the desired end result.

Can you recall the Quaker State motor oil commercial “You can pay me now and have your oil changed, or you can pay me much more later for costly engine repairs!” It’s the same way with agreements - you can take the time at the beginning and prevent the potential of a costly hassle later on. It is that simple! And, it is hard work to change life long thinking and behavioral habits.

6. PRACTICE ENABLES YOU TO CRAFT MASTERFUL AGREEMENTS.

Working with any new model is challenging. Most of us want instant success. We want to take up skiing, and head right for the expert slopes. We want to quickly master that new software program. We need some patience. Within a short time the agreement template becomes internalized, and you have a framework for life. After a while you will be making sure that you have effective agreements in place for all of the important aspects of your life. You will be getting good at it, and it will become easy! Be patient, allow yourself to step into “beginner’s mind.” Let time and experience be your teacher. You will become artful with the use of the template. Obviously, not every situation requires an explicit agreement, and, not every situation requires the “religion” of a 10 element agreement. But, you must start with making the basics an internalized habit.

7. COLLABORATION AND AGREEMENT FOR RESULTS IS SIMPLE, BUT IT IS NOT EASY. IT REQUIRES THOUGHTFULLNESS AND CLEAR THINKING ON THE FRONT END, BEFORE YOU MOVE INTO ACTION, AND A COMMITMENT TO GET THROUGH CONFLICTS

Periodically a state legislator will propose a law requiring more than a pulse and a blood test as requirements for a marriage license. Principle 7 makes a similar suggestion. It is a reminder that doing something effectively with another person is not easy, and can become especially difficult if you don’t pay attention to the details on the front end. Just as important – don’t be surprised when you begin, and conflicts you either did not anticipate, or thought were resolved, come up.


8. NO MATTER HOW CLEAR AND COMPLETE THE AGREEMENT, EVERYTHING WILL NOT BE ADDRESSED – CONFLICTS AND DIFFERENCES WILL ARISE THAT YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO RESOLVE

No matter how much time you spend, no matter how perfect the attempt, you will
revisit things you did not think about, and circumstances you did not foresee. We can reduce conflict, we cannot eliminate it! It is important to remember that being “in the process of moving toward clear agreement” is where we spend most of our time, not at that place of perfect agreement. The goal is to “normalize” conflict.

The following metaphor illustrates the importance of being OK about the constantly evolving process of moving toward resolution and agreement. I was recently told that when you fly from New York to San Francisco the plane is “dead on course” about 5% of the time. The remainder of the time the pilot is making constant course corrections. That’s the way it is. Learn to enjoy being in process. That’s where we spend most of life. This is why an essential element of every agreement is a process for resolving inevitable conflicts.

The critical thing that gets you through the rough spot in any relationship is getting to the place where you not only have a meeting of the minds, but you also have the trust that embodies a meeting of the hearts. The quality of the dialogue about the ten essential elements of any agreement is designed to forge that meeting of the hearts.

9. BREAKDOWNS ARE NOT A CAUSE FOR ALARM, THEY ARE A TO BE
EXPECTED OPPORTUNITY FOR CREATIVITY.

Conflict and resolution are part of the same cycle. Like republicans then democrats, and the Dow going up and then down, breakdowns (a stop in the action moving toward desired outcomes) are a blessing. They provide the opportunity to look at the situation with fresh eyes. From the current perspective you have the luxury of more up to date information from which to act. It is critical to hold the context as one of on-going learning as you work with someone or a group. When things go wrong it’s not time to blame, find fault, prove you right or prove them wrong. It’s time to learn about what happened so you can fix the difficulty and improve the entire process for the next time you begin.

10. RESOLVING CONFLICTS LEADS TO NEW AGREEMENTS.

Although we don’t think about it from this perspective, the end result of any conflict resolution process is a new agreement determining what the relationship will be in the future. This has two important implications:

  1. By taking time at the beginning of new personal and professional relationships (marriages, teams, joint ventures, employment contracts), we can prevent a great deal of suffering and conflict; and
  2. When conflict arises the best place to devote energy is to look to the future, and the desired results, and ask what must happen to get there. That will guide you to a new agreement. It is only useful to look at past behavior to improve the future, not to affix blame.


Stewart Levine, Esq., is a consultant, trainer, mediator and facilitator. He is the author of the award winning “Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict Into Collaboration” and the recently released “Book of Agreement” that has been called “more practical than Getting to Yes.” www.ResolutionWorks.org