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Sticking to the Agreement Is Critical

Because the agreement is the culmination of the contact phase, it is tempting to gloss over finalizing the agreement. This is especially true when consultant and client know each other and have worked together before. Nevertheless, many internal consultants who were interviewed for this book cautioned against this oversight. Each project brings different issues, roles, and expectations. You may discover that even with a contract or agreement, some clients may be unwilling to address issues that arise during the project.

In addition, with the fast pace of today's business environment, there are likely to be new stakeholders, changing business demands, or a restructured organization. It is prudent, as experienced consultants advocate, to commit the time to review the client's perspective and expectations, confirm the client and consultant roles, and verify the actions that you will each take to support the project.

Sticking to the Agreement

As the stories told by the internal consultants we interviewed suggest, another complex issue is pressure from superiors to change an agreement. Keeping your agreements builds credibility, promotes open communication, and builds trust. Keeping agreements also can mean taking risks. For example, you may need to communicate bad news; your client may need to take a courageous stand with his or her team or colleagues. Both parties should, of course, only make agreements they intend to keep and avoid making or accepting unclear or open-ended agreements.

Give early notice if you must change or break an agreement, and clean up any unintentionally broken agreements promptly. Despite all of your efforts at keeping your agreements, senior-level managers may demand changes in agreements. There are some steps you can take to minimize that possibility:

  • Make or facilitate clear agreements between primary clients or sponsors at the senior or executive level and the secondary clients who are more closely involved in the project.

  • Ensure that all stakeholders are kept informed and involved in key decisions.
  • During early consulting phases, discuss with all of the appropriate clients how to use your consulting expertise. Resist pressure to take a different approach to avoid being accountable for less-than successful results.
  • Take time to address concerns and resistance.
  • Involve other critical functional units in the contracting process.
  • Review the importance of keeping agreements as a consultant, and ask clients if they are willing to follow the same practice.

Delivering Feedback

Another important area of agreement with your client is how feedback will be delivered and received. Delivering bad news or critical feedback can place internal consultants in a vulnerable position. Clients can retaliate or shut them out if they do not like what they hear. A candid discussion can be painful, but frankness can reduce the risk later. Explore the client's openness to tough messages and issues of confidentiality, power, control, personal style, and authenticity. Will differences of opinion be governed by power and authority or by mutual respect and competence? Including this topic in your discussions and agreements psychologically prepares your client for hearing bad news and sensitive feedback. This way, the internal consultant receives permission to address the tough subjects that the client may not hear about from others.

Including Details in the Agreement

Emily Jarosz, a former internal consultant, offered a useful checklist, as shown in figure 6-1, for items that should be included in the agreement. Some items, labeled "always include," are critical items for all projects, while others are suggested "as needed" by the client, the stage, or the character of the project. Some items are more likely to be included after the information and data-collection phase, with alignment and agreement to move forward to implement an intervention.

Clarifying Expectations

Whether the project is with a new or a long-term client, clarifying expectations about the work and your role before the agreement is finalized will enhance the project's success. Being clear about what you and your client expect from each other is a preventive step that can avoid later conflict or misunderstanding. Here are some items that can be considered and included in your agreement:

  • the model or approach to change that you will use
  • the data upon which your work will be based
  • the vision of success
  • the way that success will be measured
  • the roles of consultant, client, and members of the client organization
  • the way information and data will be handled
  • the way you will communicate with one another
  • boundaries of confidentiality
  • the scope and parameters of this project
  • responsibilities of the consultant, client, and others
  • clarification of how the consultant's expertise is to be used
  • the nature of the consultant's relationship with the client
  • agreement on delivering sensitive feedback and bad news
  • deliverables and timetable
  • budget, resources, and support needed from the client
  • access and availability of the client
  • measures of success for evaluation.

Administrative tasks and responsibilities should also be clearly accounted for in the agreement. Internal consultants often end up performing tasks that are seldom expected of the external consultant. Because you live in the organization as an employee, your clients may expect you to drive the project, provide the leadership, or do the administrative work. You may need to ask yourself if you are willing to accept these responsibilities and, if not, what support the client should provide. One consultant emphasized the importance, at times, of including an agreement to use the time and expertise of the client's administrative assistant. Developing a strong relationship with an executive assistant can yield immeasurable benefits in accessing senior-level clients, obtaining approvals, and arranging schedules. In addition, such support supplements your own administrative support in sending out announcements and communicating with the client system. Even if leadership or administrative responsibilities are not part of the agreement, you may end up being the organizational nudge who reminds people of meetings, timelines, and goals, and just "keeps the trail warm," as one internal consultant put it.
Finalizing the Agreement

With assumptions and expectations clarified, it is appropriate to finalize the agreement. The level of detail in the agreement depends on the size and type of the project and the business and relationship issues involved. It may also depend on the clarity of the defining issue and what additional information is needed. During many projects, clarifying expectations, reaching agreements, and gathering information is a cyclical, ongoing process; you gain a different, independent view of the issues through collecting information and data. This affects how you approach the project. Additionally, as the project develops, the client may make additional requests. In either case, it is necessary to cycle back and revise the agreement.

For example, a new senior manager might ask the internal consultant to collect information from the members of his or her department about their development concerns and performance goals and to make recommendations about next steps. Clarification of agreements can be as simple as saying, "I am going to contact each of the members of your department, solicit information on the performance of the new system, prepare a summary and recommendations, and meet with you in three weeks." Then, clarify what is expected from the client: "And you are going to let them all know to expect a call from me and to set aside time to meet with me."

Experienced consultants strongly suggest that every client telephone call or meeting end with a statement of mutual expectation and confirmation of agreements. This effort alone can save days of misdirected work (not to mention the frustration that is bound to occur when you put time and effort into work that is not what the client expected or finds valuable).

For projects of a few hours to a few days, a verbal agreement is often sufficient. However, some consultants and some clients prefer putting the agreements - even for shorter projects - in writing. If you are unsure at the beginning of a client relationship, send a confirmatory memo by email. Most clients will be grateful to receive a clear, brief note outlining expectations.

A verbal agreement may also be all that is needed if the consultant is only going to take one or two steps before meeting again with the client to define and confirm a longer or more detailed project. For a new client or one who needs to see agreements in writing, it is useful to confirm the agreements for the next steps in a memo.

For longer projects that may take from several days to weeks, months, or even years, a more structured agreement or project plan, with a description of the presenting issues and potential opportunities to be addressed, a list of the key activities, timeframes, and the expected measurable results, is useful. A statement regarding the consultant's role and agreements about the partnership with the client and the approach to the work can be included. In some organizations and disciplines, a one-page memorandum is more customary; in others a longer, more detailed document is appropriate.

Summing Up and Looking Ahead

The product of the agreement phase is a confirmed agreement between the consultant and the client. This agreement may be verbal or written. It may specify only the next steps of data and information collection, or it may detail the phases of a long, complex project. The clearer the consultant and the client are about their expectations, the greater the chance for success of the intervention. The agreements should include clarity about outcomes, process, next steps to be taken by consultant and client, timelines, budget, and the support and resources needed. With this clear agreement, the internal consultant is ready for the next phase - information and assessment.


This is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Consulting on the Inside: A Practical Guide for Internal Consultants. The book can be ordered here.

Beverly Scott has been an outside and inside consultant for a wide range of companies from the past 35 years.She has master's degrees in sociology and human resource development, and has been a speaker and facilitator at many industry events. B. Kim Barnes is founder and CEO of Barnes & Conti Associates and has more than 35 years of consulting experience, including internal and external consulting roles with organizations in a broad range of industries.

About the Author
Beverly Scott has served as both an internal and external consultant in a wide range of organizations for more than 35 years, including 15 years as director of organization and management development for McKesson. Her background includes master's degrees in sociology and human resource development, and she has completed her doctoral coursework. Scott is a speaker and facilitator for many professional associations and has taught organizational psychology at John F. Kennedy University. She resides in San Francisco.
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