As internal consultants, learning leaders are responsible for delivering solutions that solve business problems. Depending on the organization’s structure and culture, requests for training can come in a number of different ways. Sometimes, they are issued as directives: “We need this specific training to solve this specific problem.” Other times, they are requests for guidance: “We need your advice on the best type of training to address this issue.”

Regardless of the form of the request, the most important predictor of your solution’s success or failure has nothing to do with the training itself. It’s how you manage the initial contracting for the engagement. It’s tempting to forgo contracting when your audience is familiar and the request seems reasonable. However, when reflecting on engagements that went off the rails, you can typically trace their failure back to one key mistake: taking a shortcut during the engagement’s contracting phase.

The contracting phase typically begins with a formal kick-off meeting, where you lay the foundation for the project, establishing clear expectations about roles and responsibilities, accountability and authority, available resources, and timelines. This meeting is also where you establish clarity about the goal, how you will measure its achievement, and possible obstacles to success and how to avoid or overcome them. Equally important is establishing a process for escalating issues that surface during the analysis, implementation and assessment phases.

For a successful kick-off, it’s crucial that you do your homework, invite the right people, and gain commitment to the process and the outcomes. Here are the key tasks to manage in advance of the meeting:

  • Identifying who needs to be included: Include key decision-makers, influencers, and the people who will provide access to the resources you will need to perform your analysis, develop or implement the solution. If you can’t engage someone who is crucial to the project’s success at this stage, it’s a potential future obstacle.
  • Documenting what you already know: Often, a little pre-analysis, or even your own experience with the client, will allow you to identify some up-front information. Capture and prepare to share this information in the kick-off meeting to check your assumptions and gain agreement.
  • Capturing questions you need answered: Plan your questions thoughtfully. Start with the business’ needs and concerns; include your resource, technical and content needs; and work your way through the people who can provide more nuanced context around motivations and other information you’ll need to negotiate a successful engagement. Make sure you include questions about stakeholders’ desired level of involvement at different stages, as well as how often and in what forms you should communicate throughout the engagement.
  • Planning the environment: Create an environment that encourages meaningful dialogue and a candid discussion of potential obstacles. If you have any virtual meeting participants, design your strategy to ensure that they feel included and engaged.

How long should you set aside for the kick-off? There’s no magic formula. It largely depends on your working relationship and the potential complexity of the engagement. Occasionally, kick-off meetings take several days, while others are completed in an hour. Your pre-planning should give you a sense of how much ground you will need to cover during the meeting and where you might need to facilitate decision-making around goals, resources or measurements.

Use the results of your planning to create a detailed agenda, and distribute it in advance of the meeting. After the meeting, document and circulate resulting agreements, along with the current status of and next steps for any items that were not finalized. This communication can be in the form of an email or a more robust memorandum. Provide a deadline for providing a sign-off or for raising issues.

Spending time to prepare for and facilitate a thoughtful contracting meeting will help ensure that you and the business have drawn a clear roadmap for success – and for a meaningful partnership.