Collaboration Contracts are a way of identifying who is involved in a decision and what level of decision-making authority each participant has. This isn't a delegation model where some individual is empowered and imparts unto others some fraction of their authority for a limited period of time. This is a collaboration model where all participants are equally empowered, but find consensus on all topics to be a suboptimal approach.
The mechanics are fairly straightforward:
For each decision the group needs to make, members indicate what level of participation and authority they feel is appropriate for themselves. Members then collectively review the contract, resolve any conflicts, and agree to abide by the decision once made.
The 5 Roles
For each decision, there are 5 roles that members of the group can elect; Explain, Consult, Agree, Advise, or Inquire. Each role has an associated level of decision-making authority.
The Explain role is a sole decision maker. If any member of the group selects the Explain role, they are indicating that they and they alone should make this decision. They are also indicating that they feel they have enough knowledge and experience to make this decision without input from anyone else in the group. This individual will make the decision, inform the group, and explain their thinking.
The Consult role is a also sole decision maker. If any member of the group selects the Consult role, they are indicating that they and they alone should make this decision. They are also indicating that they want to hear from other members of the group and get input, insights, and opinions before making the decision. After receiving such input, this individual will make the decision, inform the group, and explain their thinking.
The Agree role is a collective decision maker. If any member of the group selects the Agree role, they are indicating that they would like to be a decision maker, but not necessarily the only decision maker. The Agree role, given the implicit willingness to work with others, is also an indication that the decision maker wants to hear from other members of the group before making the decision. Once they've made the decision, the members of the agree role will inform the group and explain their reasoning.
The Advise role is a non-decision making role. If any member of the group selects the Advise role, they are indicating they do not need to be a decision maker, but that they have information they feel would be helpful in the decision making process.
The Inquire role is a non-decision making role. If any member of the group selects the Inquire role, they are indicating they do not need to be a decision maker and they have no information they feel would be helpful in the decision making process. The Inquire role does not participate in the decision making.
Starting a Contract
Set the Stage
A contract may have one or multiple items on it. Each item on a contract is a separate decision and has its own role elections.
Each contract has a theme and items. The theme is the overarching purpose. The theme indicates how these decisions are all related. Examples may be "Retrospective Action Items" or "Marketing Strategy". The items are the actual decisions that need to be made. Examples under the "Retrospective Action Items", for example, may be "Unit Testing Tools" or "Definition of Done". If there is misalignment between the theme and the items, this is an indication your context is too vague.
In setting the stage, we let everyone know the theme and the items. Ideally, these are short narratives as the team should already be aware of the contract and not need a lot of explanation.
It is not mandatory, but we recommend role selection happen in private where none of the members can see the responses of anyone else. The idea here is to have each member carefully consider where they truly feel they should be in terms of participation and authority. We want them to do this without being influenced by the choices of others.
Running a contract via google forms, survey monkey, or even email will allow for private individual role selection.
We have run successful collaboration contracts in an open room with a whiteboard and post-its. Private role selection is not mandatory, but we find it works better for environments where true empowerment is a relatively new concept.
Reviewing a Contract
Once everyone has selected their roles for each item, we review those items to look for conflicts.
Conflicts occur on a contract line item when individuals have selected roles that cannot be fulfilled for the same item.
Explain is a sole decision making role that requires no input from anyone else in the group. There may be no more than 1 person in Explain. If there is 1 person in Explain, everyone else must be in Inquire.
Consult is a sole decision making role that anticipates input from others in the group. There may be no more than 1 person in Consult. If there is 1 person in Consult, there cannot be anyone in Explain or Agree. Everyone else must be in either Advise or Inquire. If there is 1 person in Consult and no people in Advise, Consult moves up to Explain for clarity.
Agree is a collective decision making role. If there is 1 person in Agree, they must move up to Consult for clarity. If there are 2 or more people in Agree, there can be nobody in Explain or Consult.
Advise & Inquire are non-decision making roles. If all members are in either Advise or Inquire, you have no decision maker. Somebody needs to move up to Consult.
Conflict resolution is achieved through group discussion. For each conflict, the individuals in Explain, Consult, Agree, and Advise need to discuss and resolve the conflict. This is usually fairly simple, but may require facilitation.
In this example, Joe is in Consult and Alice is in Agree. These roles are in conflict. The group needs to discuss the conflict and come to a workable solution where either Alice moves to Advise or Joe moves to Agree.
Finalizing a Contract
Once we've resolved the conflicts, our contract is ready for finalization. A finalized contract is an agreement between all the parties. Each member of the group, regardless or role(s) selected, indicates they are in support of the contract.
All members, including those who've chosen non-decision making roles, are acknowledging their willingness to abide by the decisions. An Advise or Inquire cannot later inform the group that they will not follow the decision because they don't agree with it. This is, of course, within reasonable parameters such as legal or ethical issues.
Members who've chosen decision making roles are acknowledging their willingness to abide by the contract parameters. A Consult cannot make a decision without consulting all of the members of the Advise role.