Before-we-start agreements

It can be so easy to jump in to a task, a job, or project. 

However, this can create issues. Have you ever been far along in a project and realize you wish you could go back to the beginning and set up an agreement that would allow you to work better? Maybe you’re wishing you would have been paid ahead of time, boundaries on your time, or more realistic deliverables. 

Whether you are a salaried employee, freelance contractor, or volunteer committee member, if we’re not careful, we can fall into situations where expectations are misaligned, balls are dropped, and people get frustrated . . . including you.

Here’s a potential solution... set up an agreement

Something you can try is setting up a “before we start” agreement. 

Step 1 — Pause your personal work on the project. Before your jump head-first into your project, remember to pause and clarify and agree first. If you’re already working on the project, don’t worry, it’s not too late. Pause now before you do anything else. This is better than waiting until the end!

Step 2 — Create your “front end” agreement. You can also call this your Front-loaded Agreement, Before-We-Start Agreement, Working Expectations Agreement, or Memo-of-Understanding (MOU). It’s important you create this in writing and not just out loud. Having it digital and easily recall-able helps, too. It doesn’t have to be more than 1 typed page with plenty of margins and white space. Here are some potential sections to outline:

  • A short description of the work to be provided
  • Boundaries of time and energy
  • Expectation on delivery date
  • Variables that could change the delivery date or other conditions
  • What this “doesn’t include” section (helpful to keep the scope narrow)

Step 3 — Share the agreement digitally. Share a copy of your document with your boss or team digitally and make sure everyone has enough time to process what’s been written. It’s important they have a copy on their end so they can refer back to it down the road.

Step 4 — Make the agreement and move forward. If you need to make adjustments, do so, then re-send it to everyone. Now that you have the clarity on the expectations and deliverables, you and everyone else is now accountable. You’ve set up the boundaries and your mind will actually be able to relax and focus on the outcome. 

Prevent frustration and overwork with these powerful, yet simple tools

When working on a team, have you ever been frustrated because a project did not turn out quite right?

It turns out that our expectations are often linked to frustration and overwork. If we want to prevent frustration, we must consider how we communicate our personal expectations. Consider these questions:

How often do you clearly set your personal expectations?

How often do you communicate those expectations to your team?

Do you do that a way the brain is wired to understand information?

Do you review your expectations and results consistently?

In this post, I’ll help you learn how to be clear with your team and yourself. Appropriately clarified expectations will prevent frustration, prevent busy work, prevent over work, and help you achieve more focus and momentum.

First, some thoughts on personal expectations (internal processing)

Personal expectations are a picture of what success looks like. But because it’s a personal expectation, it’s highly likely that no one else knows it, except for you. For some, the expectation could be as simple as everyone showing up in the same room at the same time. For others, it looks as elaborate and ornamented as Disneyland.

Notice expectations everywhere

We must grow in our awareness of our expectations. We have expectations for how to spend our personal time, expectations on when you will leave work, how many vacation days you will use, and how hot that caramel macchiato will be…

Every time you go anywhere—a gas station, a website, a conference room—you have an idea of how things will unfold. You expect the nozzle on the gas pump to click off when your tank reaches a certain level. You expect websites to be easy to navigate. You expect conference rooms to have chairs and a place to plug in your laptop. You could probably tell me stories of times when your expectations were NOT met. And I bet you wouldn’t have to look at any notes!

On the other hand, when our expectations are exceeded, we are wowed. When our expectations are not met, we get frustrated and discontent. To avoid frustration, notice your expectations.

To avoid frustration, notice your expectations.

It is easy to grow numb or forget about our expectations. It takes less energy and effort to do the brave work of thinking before we “do.” The problem is many of us do not take the appropriate time and energy (energy is the secret killer in this scenario) to figure out what we really want to see happen.

In our work environments, it might seem simple and obvious that we should agree on expectations before jumping into doing our work. However, it’s all-too-common for people to jump into a task, take it to completion, only to find out you and your team or boss are on a different page. To work toward better clarification, we must set expectations on a regular basis. To illustrate this, we will look at rhythms and rituals.

4 Steps to Prevent Overwork and Frustration

Whether you are a disciplined person or more of a free spirit, we all operate our lives with a set of rhythms. Again, we must become aware of our rhythms, regardless of how you might be wired. Some of us are more intentional about how we structure our days, weeks, and lives — while others prefer a more free-flowing schedule. Both are great!
One problem is that we keep things junked up in our head. The simple solution is to get things out of your head.

1. Set your personal expectations by thinking through your situation smarter

The 5 Cs tool (internal auditing)

Auditors at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) use a set of questions to figure out what’s happening within a team. Below is the condensed version. You can view their full set of tools at [–704G]

  1. What’s the criteria for success? (How do you think should it be? The client? The team?)
  2. What’s the current condition or reality? (How is it?) 
    • What’s the gap between the criteria and the condition?
  3. What’s causing the current reality?
  4. What is the consequence of the current reality?
  5. What’s your recommended corrective action to potentially solve the issue?

A few other powerful questions

  • What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  • What item, if we focused on it for the next 3 months, would provide the greatest momentum?
  • What are we working toward?

Asking questions like the 5Cs gives you a picture on why you’re working on what you’re working on.

2. Externalize your thinking using writing, visuals, or audio

Often, people jump right into a meeting, phone call, or conversation to solve an issue without any externalized thinking. They didn’t take the time to figure out what they need to figure out—and they waste your time doing so. While everyone is not an analytical thinker or “external processor,” everyone will benefit from the process of getting things out of your head and onto a page, screen, board, wall, or other miscellaneous bucket. Where doesn’t matter as much as when. The best time to do this is before meetings, phone calls, and other team-oriented environments.

Physical visualized thinking

Digital tools are great. Sometimes, they’re too close to your email and other pings. So here are some analog tools that are great for getting thinking out of your head.

  • Large post-it pages (Easel pad)
  • Regular 3x3 sticky notes (multiple colors if needed)
  • Slickynotes (a fun, glue-free alternative to Post-Its)
  • Harogoma chalk, chalkboard, or chalkboard wall
  • Legal pad
  • Back of an envelope
  • Moleskine
  • Muji notebook
  • Field Notes Notebook
  • Rite in the Rain Notebook
  • 8.5x11 sheet of paper — colored or white
  • 11x17 art paper — available at Walmart or Staples in the art section
  • Graph paper
  • Doane Paper — lines and graph
  • Dot grid paper (Rhodia)
  • Whiteboard, Whiteboard paint
  • Notecards and bulletin boards

The key with physical tools is to find the combination that is the most attractive to you. If you are resisting writing in a Moleskine, try an envelope, or the edge of a newspaper. If Field Notes are too small, try large art paper. Just try different mediums until you find one that allows you to get what’s in your head onto something in the physical world.

Digital visualized thinking

Sometimes, your mind is churning and all you have is your laptop or phone. Here are some tools to have ready to go to get your thinking out of your head...

  • Google Docs (Set up a template)
  • Google Sheets
  • Mind Node, Mind Manager, etc (Mind Mapping Software)
  • Keynote or Powerpoint
  • Microsoft Word
  • Adobe Illustrator, InDesign
  • Ulysses
  • Scrivener
  • iA Writer
  • Stream of conscious writing

Spoken externalized thinking

If you are driving or unable to get something down on paper, you can capture your thoughts with a voice recorder or

  • Voice memo
  • Selfie video
  • Voice mail
  • Tascam or Zoom digital recorder

3. Share or “communicate” your thinking clearly

Now that you’ve taken some time to figure out what you need to figure out,

  • 1‑page summary
  • Email
  • Phone call
  • In-person meeting
  • Digital Zoom meeting
  • Voice memo, voice mail, or etc

Template for 1‑pagers, emails, conversations, or meetings:

  • Here are the main people that need to know this:
  • Here’s the bottom line:
  • Here’s what we need to do:
  • Here’s supporting info: (if any)
  • Here’s the criteria and deadline
  • Here’s how often we will follow up and touch base
  • Here’s background (if any)

4. Follow up, confirm, and repeat back

Touching base with your team to make sure you follow through with what you agreed on builds trust. Without this, teams can start to get frustrated and overworked. Here are a couple ideas for how to follow up:

  • Email — Wanted to check in to see where we are with ________. Could you give me a 5 minute call to discuss?
  • Slack or other instant messages Hey can we touch base about ______? Want to make sure we are still on the same page.
  • 10 minute coaching conversation (The Coaching Habit) What’s on your mind? What else? How can I help?

Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” Brene Brown

Recommended reading

Cal Newport Deep Work
Steven Pinker The Language Instinct
Brene Brown Dare to Lead

Question: how have you found ways to clarify your expectations to avoid overwork and frustration?

How the way we end conversations leads to confusion or action

Have you ever worked with someone who uses confusion and complexity and avoids action? Instead of figuring out the next thing to do, they talk about how big a problem is. Instead of taking action, they freeze. 

I had a work colleague that used this tactic. In critical conversations, she would talk at length about many different angles of an issue. We would discuss the tensions that caused a particular problem but rarely reached a solution. She would conclude these unproductive conversations with a signature phrase “yeah, isn’t this complicated?”

Yeah, isn’t this complicated” is a way of saying, this situation is overwhelming, I don’t know what to do. It’s a way of saying, “the work we are doing takes effort, but I don’t want to do anything.”. Instead of figuring out an action plan and doing stuff, yeah, it’s complicated was a way of avoiding movement. 

Avoiding movement

Avoid movement is safe. No action buys us time. We don’t have to face tensions with people and do the difficult emotional work of deciding.

Moving toward action: how to end conversations with helpful phrases

Instead of leaving a conversation confused, we should seek clarity. I like Brenee Brown’s phrase: “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” We must define and create projects, not complain about problems. We can organize our projects by deciding who owns it, deciding who is going to take the next step, and by when. It takes a little more effort, but the end result is a much. 

Here are some helpful questions that may help you end conversations toward clarity:

  1. Who owns this?
  2. How will we know if this is a success?
  3. What does success look like to you?
  4. How can I help?
  5. What do you want me to do?

A cog in the system

Nobody wants to be a meaningless cog in the system.

It is reliable. It gets the job done. It’s strong and doesn’t let its personality get in the way. It doesn’t complain. It supports the system and the bigger machine to produce a manufactured end result. And it works — over and over again.

In leadership, we DO have a lot of “systems” — each of our teams have unique complexities and things to — but we do not want to treat or think of our team members as cogs in the system. 

Your role as a leader is to remind people that we’re not just doing a bunch of “things” but we’re a part of something much bigger than our selves. Love them when they don’t get the job done. Help them when they’re weak and their personality is spewing everywhere. 

Don’t get me wrong: tasks need to get done and there must be a standard of excellence.

Question to ponder: How can you remind people that they’re not a cog and show them that they matter?

What are ways we can love and lead people?

The power of checklists

This may sound obvious, but it turns out that checklists are a super powerful tool for getting things right. I heard a great interview about the power of checklists in hospitals on NPR — if you’re interested check it out here: 

For each of our areas, I want us to think about creating some great checklists that allow us to create “I’m coming back” experiences for every guest, each week, regardless of volunteers. 

Atul Gawande explains in his book The Checklist Manifesto that there are two kinds of checklists: (1) DO-CONFIRM (2) READ-DO

A person or team performs the work, then review the checklist to confirm all of the steps were executed. If not, the pause the checklist provides is a chance to get right what wasn’t.

These checklists are more like recipes. They are slower to execute but you go down each item line by line and DO the item before moving on. 


  • Usually no longer than 9 items (in line with how much the human brain can remember)
  • Leave out things that are implied 
  • Wording should be simple and exact
  • Use familiar language of the area
  • It should fit on one page
  • Free of clutter and unnecessary color
  • Uses upper and lowercase type for readability 
  • Tweak and perfect the checklist as issues arise

Checklists allow us to not rely on one person or even our own brain. Put simply, checklists become our external brain that we can rely and trust to remember what needs to happen.

Checklists allow us to grow our teams and train new members how to do a role. 

Checklists allow us to be able to take a day off and not worry about what needs to happen!

Checklists allow us to make great first impressions.

Checklists pave the way for consistency. 

I am going to work on some starting point checklists for each of us to consider for our areas — but I’d also encourage you to be thinking about what needs to happen each week and putting that into a simple, concise checklist for your area. Looking forward to seeing you all soon! I’d love to schedule a leaders-only meeting and check in with everyone to see how you’re doing and areas where you might need help. 

Communicate early and often

I’ve experienced it and I’m sure you have too. You’re getting close to a deadline for a project and you’re waiting on 12 essential details to complete everything. 

You’re so close to the deadline that having any conversations or communication will KEEP you from completing the project

So what do you do? 

You skip them... and get to work. 

Seriously though... who has time to communicate early and often when you have a deadline to meet? 

It’s easier to go silent and communicate less when there’s a big event or deadline right around the corner. However, one of the strategic behaviors I want all of us to consider as leaders is this:

We communicate EARLY and OFTEN.

Part 1: Communicating EARLY

This means we talk about stuff while we can still make plenty of adjustments. When you communicate late, there’s often no time left to make changes. On Nov 13, I wrote about how we plan in advance so that ‘lack of time’ is never an issue. Around CFC, we don’t want to fall into the “I didn’t have enough time” trap. That’s not a good excuse! By communicating early, we can keep each other in the loop before it is too late.

When you communicate early... you can let your team know about stuff while there’s still time to figure out key details and other solutions. 

When you communicate early... you allow time for proper planning. See my post from Nov 13 for more planning tips and tricks:

Part 2: Communicating OFTEN

This just means we’re in the pattern of a consistent conversation — not a irregular monologue

So far my personal attempts to achieve this have been:

  • Monthly volunteer training meetings (Saturdays) 
  • Weekly(ish) posts here in Basecamp (like this one)

But I’m sure there’s more I could do and that we could all do... 

Next steps...

  • What, if anything, do you have to communicate that would be better for your team to know SOONER than later?
  • How often have you communicated? 
  • What can we do better to make sure communication is happening EARLY and OFTEN?