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?

Excellence is your next email”

In an inter­view with Daniel Pink, lead­er­ship guru Tom Peters says “excel­lence is your next email.”

Peters is known for say­ing, “Excel­lence is the next five min­utes.” That’s true, too.

The point of his com­ment is that it’s com­mon to believe excel­lence is some huge kind of feat. In oth­er words, our default is to believe excel­lence requires enor­mous plan­ning, prepa­ra­tion, and per­se­ver­ance. The truth is excel­lence starts with how you approach all the mico-deci­sions in your life and work. This includes seem­ing­ly mun­dane deci­sions like com­mu­ni­cat­ing with our cowork­ers and how we main­tain our envi­ron­ment.

Excel­lence starts with how you approach all the mico-deci­sions in your life and work

Josh Mitchell

Peters con­tin­ues: “In a five line email, you reveal every sin­gle impor­tant ele­ment of your per­son­al­i­ty and view of life.” Peters remarks to Dan that they both know this is true.

Cue it up to 10:50 to hear Tom Peter’s riff on “Excel­lence is...”

When life and work get crazy, spend­ing time to thought­ful­ly craft a mes­sage in writ­ing requires focus and think­ing. We resist high­er lev­el think­ing and rea­son­ing. We want to achieve the end goal with­out deal­ing with the messy mid­dle.

As you reflect on your work, do you approach micro-actions with any lev­el of excel­lence?

Excel­lent email writ­ing does­n’t have to look super fan­cy or be “Eng­lish on stilts.” It does­n’t mean you have to start have all the cor­rect gram­mar and punc­tu­a­tion (key word start). It means you have con­sid­er your read­er and the issue at hand. It means paus­ing and think­ing about the ques­tions some­one might have when they read your writ­ing. It means car­ing for oth­ers: show­ing empa­thy and con­nec­tion.

What are you reveal­ing about your per­son­al­i­ty when you send an email?

What are you reveal­ing about your view of life when you share your writ­ing?

Peters’ obser­va­tion rings true for me. Many of my cowork­ers and col­leagues reveal so much about their val­ues in the way they write. Some take the time to write thought­ful, clear words. This earns trust. Oth­ers spew out infor­ma­tion onto the screen. This caus­es frus­tra­tion and extra work.

Have you con­sid­ered how you can spread excel­lence in your micro-actions?

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.