Contracts have a wide variety of functions, but one which is too often overlooked is their role as a communication tool. For that they need to be accurate, legally sound and enhance trust.

Communicating trust

Trust is a many-faceted word, combining concepts of integrity, intent, capabilities and results (or, as Stephen MR Covey puts it in the Speed of Trust, character and competence).

Trust is demonstrated by a good working relationship, mutual effort and cooperation, clear communication, and effective management.

What type of document best embodies trust? [Hint: it’s generally not a contract.]

…users of contracts need a document that leads them systematically through essential content and that reliably leads to correct action. It needs to be comprehensive, accessible and easy for document producers to maintain. The document genre which has best evolved to solve this set of problems is the user guide.

User guides allow users to skim read them to find quick answers to questions. Most user guides include:

  • quick start information (layering)
  • icons, tables, diagrams, and flowcharts (visualisations)
  • colour, crisp typography and uncluttered layouts
  • plain language (conversational tone) and 
  • a clear focus on the user needs.

Rob Waller, on a project with a global energy company, took inspiration from these type of user guides to create guides from existing contract terms, on topics which are key areas of friction: pricing, reporting, project management and invoicing. He also used a variety of different contract design patterns to support:

  1. reader engagement ie encouraging you to continue to read (or read at all)
  2. strategic reading ie finding what you need quickly
  3. explanation ie understanding what you find
  4. effective user response ie prompting you to carry out the right actions.


What should you do?

If you can’t change your contract, commission a user guide to ensure everyone who uses the contract can apply it in practice. That process might enlighten you as to how you could improve the content when you do get the opportunity, or indicate where you could benefit from training on key processes or risks to avoid issues in the future.

What good, after all, is a contract that only produces negative user responses?

Article: Robert Waller, Jenny Waller, Helena Haapio, Gary Crag and Sandi Morrisseau (2016), Cooperation through clarity: designing simplified contracts, Journal of Strategic Contracting and Negotiation. Published online before print September 27, 2016 doi: 10.1177/2055563616668893

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