The problem with contracting: how to get it less wrong

Change & Organisation Development

by Sophy Pern

04 August, 2023

While we’re all pretty well versed in contracting on tasks, deliverables and outcomes we’re much less comfortable with contracting around roles. And yet, in the absence of good enough contracting, we are often left flailing, trying to find a safe place to work from, keen to deliver on the task we’ve signed up to, but ill-equipped to do so.

Of course, contracting on roles typically requires an honest conversation about what’s needed, what each of us might be up for, and what’s possible in the current context, given power, politics, organisational culture, history and a whole load of other fun stuff.

These conversations require a certain degree of openess, vulnerability, and can open up a Pandora’s box of questions about how things really work around here, and our sense of inclusion and belonging. It’s perhaps no surprise then that most organizations have  job titles which establish a well understood shorthand for where one stands in the organisation.  A cynic might suggest that one of the purposes of titles is to eliminate the need for these messy, awkward and yet important conversations.

We offer here a translation of the shorthand, (tongue only slightly in cheek)

  • If you’re senior – you make it clear what you want delivered, and with a bit of luck, not much more is required from you, other than marking everyone’s homework at the end. You definitely have a licence to change your mind on what you want delivered halfway through, and since you are very important you probably don’t have time to play an active role. You will of course open and close sessions in a statesmanlike fashion, but you can’t stick around for the messy bits in the middle.
  • If you’re junior – it’s fairly safe to assume your role is to keep the boss happy, without being impertinent. Impertinence looks like asking lots of clarification questions, so rather than do that, it’s best to guess what the seniors would say (if they were here, which clearly they can’t be because they have more important things to do than this really important change that they are sponsoring) 
  • If you are an external supplier – well, if you don’t pay attention, all the same rules of being junior apply to you, with a slightly lower duty of care than that between seniors and juniors. External and expendable can be close to synonymous in many an organisation.

Of course the rub is that if you are doing strategic change work, that requires thinking together, learning and creating new possibilities, as a change partner you can’t work from a ‘one-down’ place. So contracting for role, and staying in role becomes essential.

A good role contract contains us, and keeps us safe enough to do the change work;

  • It provides enough authority for our task
  • It helps us to decide what we need to be to whom
  • It helps us know where we stand when we need to seek or provide input or feedback
  • And it gives us a license to walk away

By now you’re probably nodding your head or reliving a painful experience.  So where do we go wrong when it comes to contracting?

Or, better put, what are the questions to be asking ourselves all the way through a piece of important change work?

  1. Agree what work needs to be done; What will it look like? How will we know it is working, or has worked? What pitfalls should we expect along the way?
  2. Configure the team relationships; What roles are required here? What do we need to be effective in our roles, in this system? How will we make decisions?  How will we know we are working well together? What will we do when we notice that we are not?
  3. Plot check-ins and regroups; Use regular (but not overbearing) meetings to check in with each other, stay abreast of any changes in the work, and be deliberate about asking how it’s working for people. Probe when there is silence….
  4. Remain agnostic; The best plans are flexible. As things shift, shift with them- and be explicit not only about what is changing in the work, but how roles are shifting too.

While following the above steps will help, contracting is an ongoing activity, not a one and done. When, as it always does, it gets messy and tricky, I like to remind myself of this quote by Philip Roth:

“The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

The problem with contracting: how to get it less wrong

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