Up-Front Contracts — My First Consulting Tool

Adapted from material I’ve used for coaching our staff at Headspring, where I equip our teams to build great software that transforms organizations.

I’ve noticed recently, as I’ve sat with some of our team during 1:1’s and with client calls — especially introductory sales calls and project review and requirements gathering meetings, that we hadn’t been reinforcing the concept of an up-front contract as much as we used to. I realized that part of the reason for that is, I haven’t really spoken explicitly about up-front contracts in a while. The first time I saw the phrase, I assumed, like a lot of people do, that it had to do with how you develop the initial version of a written contract, like a statement of work for an engagement. Of course, I was wrong. (yes, I said it. I. Was. Wrong.) An Up-Front Contract is a mutually-agreed upon charter for an interaction with another party. You can use them in emails, on phone calls, one on one meetings, multi-person group meetings, and really anywhere involving a group of people interacting with the goal of getting something done. They’re definitely not good at cocktail parties though — that’s a different skill set altogether, and if you’ve mastered the art of social small talk, I hope you’ll give me some pointers.

For some of you, this may be old hat, but worth a deliberate refresher. For others, this may be the first time you’re seeing this concept, and worth applying immediately in your every day interactions. For me, understanding this technique and mastering it was the first step I took in raising the quality of my communication with my clients, and it’s one of the most valuable tools in my communication toolbox.

So with that — on to up-front contracts!

An Up-Front Contract is a mutually-agreed upon charter for an interaction with another party.

The Why

Up-Front Contracts provide you, as a party in a communication, with three things:

  1. Set a mutually-agreed-upon agenda for a meeting
  2. Take control of the session
  3. Lower other parties’ defenses

Having a mutually agreed upon agenda is critical to any meeting or communication — without it, you and the other party don’t know if you got anything done or not. With it, you can be sure you’re all aiming for the same result. That also gives you the ability to steer the meeting back to its original purpose when it gets off course, and park any conversations that don’t further that original purpose.

By being the one to establish the Up-Front Contract, you take the reins of the meeting. It becomes your meeting. This is an especially useful tool any time you’re being brought in to troubleshoot a problem, or to address a crisis scenario — think production issues, customer satisfaction escalations, and the like.

And lastly, a strong up-front contract lowers the other person’s defenses — meaning that it puts them in a position of voluntarily handing you control of the meeting, and gets them saying “yes” to you right out the gate. It puts them in a more agreeable frame of mind. Moving them to a more following-based, more “yes”-oriented mindset is especially important in uncomfortable or difficult situations, but is valuable to you no matter what their default stance is at the beginning.

The What

An Up-Front Contract consists of the following components:

  1. Appreciation
  2. Purpose
  3. Time
  4. Their Role
  5. Your Role
  6. Outcomes
  7. Permission

Just reading those, you can see the idea here:

  • Start with validating the other person and showing interest in them.
  • Establish why you’re having the meeting and how it’s going to be conducted, when it’s going to happen and when it’s going to be complete, who’s doing what during the meeting, and what you’re going to accomplish. (Where tends to be obvious and not necessary to establish.)
  • Finally, secure their permission to proceed with the plan you’ve laid out, and invite them to contribute to it.

In practice, an up front contract might go something like this:

“Joe, I really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me today. Obviously, this is our regular weekly progress meeting, and I’m going to take you through everything we’ve accomplished in the last week, as well as lay out our proposed set of deliverables for next week. We’re booked here for an hour, though of course if we wrap up early like we typically do I’ll be glad to give you a little bit of your day back. Naturally, there are a few things I’m going to need from you and your team over the next week so we can hit these dates for you, and I’ll be laying those out as well as I take you through our progress. If there’s anything that catches your eye or that’s not clear today, of course we’ll make sure to leave time to address those. From here, we’ll take all your feedback and I’ll send the complete set of results and follow on tasks as soon as I’m back at the office. With that, Joe, unless you’ve got anything you’d like to add, and with your permission, I’m going to jump right in — we’ve got a lot to cover today!”

Read through that example and look for the seven components. Now — think about other times you’ve seen someone kick off a meeting, either internal or external. Can you spot the up-front contract? How strong was it? How would you improve it?

Counter Example

The same meeting, done poorly, might start something like this instead:

So, I wanted to start today with bug UD-372, which we have some questions for you about.

I’ve been in countless meetings that begin along those veins, usually because the person running the meeting hasn’t thought through their goals in the interaction. They’re just “showing up and throwing up.” From there, who knows where you’ll end up, or what kind of responses you’ll get from your client, how long you’ll be there, or how you’ll know if you’re done!

Helper Words — ANOT

An up-front contract can sound stilted or mechanical if you’re not careful. ANOT is a helpful mnemonic for some words that help soften an up-front contract and help it flow more conversationally:

  • A — Appreciate
  • N — Naturally
  • O — Obviously
  • T — Typically

These words reassure the other party that you’re familiar with this kind of engagement, and help guide them to feeling “OK” about proceeding with the contract you’ve established. It’s hard to argue against things that are obvious, natural, and typical, and that come with a high level of appreciation, after all!

Opportunities

If your goal is to convene with other human beings with the purpose of getting something done, there is nothing more valuable than an up-front contract to ensure that you actually accomplish that. Think for a moment of all the various types of communication we engage in during a regular work day:

  • Project progress meetings (the most obvious)
  • Kickoffs
  • Closeouts
  • Prospecting calls
  • Contract negotiations
  • 1:1’s, career development, and performance reviews
  • Emails requesting aid from someone
  • Bug reports
  • Production issues
  • Client escalations
  • and the list goes on

Application

Make it a habit to practice your up front contract before any scheduled meeting. Work on “micro contracts” you can incorporate into your emails, even your instant messages. Practice working the ANOT helper words in to your up-front contract vocabulary. Watch for how the other party responds to specific wording and turns of phrase that you use. Make your contracts fluid and easy sounding, so you don’t sound like Sgt. Friday on Dragnet going through “just the facts.” Spend a day keeping track of how many up-front contracts you can establish in various interactions. Challenge your team members and help them rehearse — you get much, much better at this the more you practice it!