This week I got involved in a conversation that had lawyers sitting on the other side of the table. Thankfully not the kind of discussion that happens when things go bad, but the other kind, when things haven’t quite started yet.

This happens a lot in organisational life. Employment contracts, licensing agreements, partnerships, outsourcing, non-disclosures, service level agreements. Internally and externally, we rely on bits of paper to nail the detail. These things are so common that it’s easy to believe that this is the way to do business. That this is how to deal with difficult possibilities. That this will make everything ok. But it won’t.

Lawyering like this is good, but it will only reduce some of the wriggle room for some of the arguments that normally come up. Not eliminate disagreements altogether. Not stop problems happening. Just squeeze some of the juice out of the lemon – it’s still going to hurt, but not as much.

If it’s going to hurt, why do it? Why employ, agree, partner, outsource or do anything else that puts us in the hands of others? The promise of working together is that the business of the organisation will be better than before. An organisation’s success will increasingly be determined by its ability to work across formal boundaries – whether than means inter-department or inter-company.

  • Go in with eyes wide open. By all means clock up some billable time with lawyers but don’t kid yourself that this means plain sailing from start to finish. There will be problems. Expect them to happen, however good your relationship and however willingly the parties sign at the start.
  • Work through the bad times. When things start going wrong, put your collective heads down and work it out. Nobody wins when you walk away or run to litigation. Remind yourselves the reason you got together – to both be better than before – and find the path through the mountains.

When choosing which person or organisation to share ink with, work out who you’re dealing with (which is more about values than names or capabilities), and ask yourself “can I work with them when things go wrong?”

Ultimately, never allow the desire for a deal to cloud the needs of the business.

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