I have come to learn that the most important phase of consulting – both for the client and for the consultant – is developing the original contract.   I am not referring to a lengthy exchange of legal clauses, but a process in which both parties emerge with increased clarity and certainty about what needs to be done.

 

How can what is generally thought of as a tedious and dry process accomplish all of this? Because contracting is more akin to building a relationship (exploring new ground, understanding each other’s needs and gifts, planting the seeds of trust) than it is about protections and compliance. The brilliance of a good contract is that it speaks directly to what the client wants and needs, spells out what is to be accomplished, and establishes the mutual trust and footing needed to bring about the envisioned change within an organization. And, since change is by nature unpredictable, new, and often urgently needed by the time a consultant has been called in, getting things right from the beginning makes it much more likely that the transformation needed will be firmly rooted once the terms of the contract have been fully met.

 

Clearly the work itself is more important than the piece of paper making it official, yet it is my sense that the work will inevitably take place with more passion, precision and impact when the consultant and the director take significant time up front to get the scope just right. The sure sign of a good contract is when an organization’s leadership can state with confidence to anyone who asks why they have brought a consultant on board and what results they hope to accomplish.

 

For more tips on contracting, see  Baker’s slide lecture Contracting: Setting and Meeting Expectations, and mini-lecture from consulting practicum course at UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

 

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