Imagine dating someone who constantly lies to you.
He says your outfit looks great, when actually you desperately need to change your shoes.
She tells you that it’s sunny outside and you don’t need an umbrella, when it’s actually smashing it down with rain.
He tells you that he’s just short of cash right now, and he’ll absolutely pay you back by Friday. Friday rolls around, and lo and behold, he doesn’t have the money again.
Most of us would probably think two things in this situation:
And you’d be right.
But many of us put up with — or are guilty of — this behaviour in a work context.
We allow people to turn up late to meetings, or skip them entirely. We say we’ll have something done by Friday, but on Friday, we tell that person we got caught up with something else, and we have to push it back to Tuesday now. We promise to send out a follow-up after the meeting, but forget.
I have been guilty of this behaviour. And I have tolerated it.
The result of carrying out and tolerating this behaviour is frustration, inefficiency, sloppiness, and ultimately propagating a culture of ineffectiveness.
The solution: the impeccable agreement.
In his book The Great CEO Within, Matt Mochary — CEO coach and advisor to startups like Coinbase, AngelList, Reddit, Flexport and more — defines an impeccable agreement as an agreement that is:
(I’m pretty sure he got the concept from the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, in which Ruiz gives these four principles:
Obviously impeccable agreements are the first of these four principles, applied to a business context. Maybe I’ll talk more about the other three if and when I ever read that book because, you know, they all sound like Good Things To Do.)
Precisely defined means that a successful follow-through of the agreement can be judged by an objective third party. For example, “expand to Europe” is not precisely defined. An impeccable agreement would be as follows:
Decision: expand to Europe
You now have an agreement that can be judged as complete by a neutral arbiter. We either have an office building on June 12 or we don’t. We either have a GM Europe in the company by August 15, or we don’t.
(Side note: you might recognise this format of goal-setting if you’ve ever set SMART goals, which are:
It’s basically the same thing.)
The reason for needing to write these down is because unless a verbal agreement is a very simple one (e.g. “we agree to reconvene this meeting at 11:00am, in exactly 15 minutes”), it’s easy for different people to interpret it differently, with their own biases, lenses, or understandings.
For example, does “hire GM Europe” mean that you’ve got an accepted offer from a candidate? Or that they’ve actually started work at your organisation? You need to specify these things as you’re writing them down.
First and foremost, impeccable agreements are a way of keeping people accountable. If I have promised a result to my boss, I want to make damn sure that I hit that, both because I have professional pride in myself, and because I want my boss to have a good opinion of me.
One of the fastest and best ways to advance in your career is to in fact start making these impeccable agreements with yourself and your boss, and then hit them, every single time. A person that consistently delivers the results they promise is a person who is going to get promoted in short order (mostly because such people are in surprisingly short supply).
Secondly, businesses thrive on repeatability and predictability. If someone in my team assures me that the new sales presentation they’re working on will be ready by first thing Monday morning, then I can line up a meeting with my boss at 10am on Monday morning to talk her through it. That means she can line up a meeting with her boss to talk him through it at 11am. By 11:15 we can get our change proposal signed off. By lunchtime we’re done and moving on to the next thing.
If any step in that chain breaks down — if my team fail to deliver, or I miss the meeting, or my boss’s boss has to cancel — then things start to slip. People get frustrated and demoralised. Implementing anything takes longer and longer than it used to.
Over time, the culture falls to the level of behaviour you tolerate. You tolerate sloppiness, tardiness, and a general lax attitude to getting things done, which becomes your culture. Top performers leave for greener pastures where they can be around other A-players. The organisation enters a vicious cycle that is monumentally difficult to reverse.
On the other hand, if you see everyone around you keeping their word, delivering on what they promised, and generally getting after it, you want to raise your game to match that standard. You want to play at the level that everyone else is playing at. So do people at other companies, who join you because they’ve heard about your great culture and amazing people. The organisation enters a virtuous cycle that is self-perpetuating.
So keeping impeccable agreements is crucial to maintaining a culture of excellence.
Matt Mochary says it best again:
As soon as you realize you won’t be able to keep the agreement, you let the other members of the agreement circle know. You also let them know what you can do. This gives them the opportunity to adjust and maintain productivity.
E.g. if you said you’d have a GM Europe in post by August 12, but by July 31 you’re yet to find a qualified candidate, you let the CEO know. Then the CEO can pull your VP of Sales aside, who’s shown a ton of leadership potential and ambition, and say “hey, while we’re still recruiting the GM Europe, I need you to jump on a plane to London and start building out our organisation over there.” Things continue in the best way possible.
If you do not inform the agreement circle as soon as possible, then you have broken the agreement, and begun the vicious cycle towards mediocrity and irrelevance.
The first time someone doesn’t meet an agreement, you point it out to them immediately. If they apologize, you respond that apologies are not needed, and all that is required is that they only make agreements that they can commit to and that they meet all the agreements they make, whether by adherence or by prompt communcation that they need to alter the agreement.
If that person continues to fail at these, there is only one consequence that makes sense: they can no longer be part of the company.
Broken agreements can be a good source of coaching and development topics: it hels spot where your team might be weak, e.g. on planning ahead, managing their workload, or reaching out to others for help. This is fine if the person addresses the issue and in future only makes agreements that they can keep or alter in good time. It is not fine if the person continues to break their agreements.
Because much like you’d break up with someone who always lied to you, you can’t keep people around if they don’t deliver on their promises — unless you want to be a mediocre organisation full of B and C players.
For some insight into how a company does this, check out this post by Clearbit CEO Alex MacCaw (who has been coached by Matt Mochary). Clearbit keep all their impeccable agreements in Asana, like so:
I recommend some similar way of recording these, and keeping track of the percentage of agreements that are kept, altered, and broken. Over time, aim for 90% kept or altered.
The additional benefit of this is that it makes performance management, appraisals, and promo talks more straightforward, because you have a record of what people have accomplished, and the percentage of time they broke those agreements.
Similarly, if a person regularly breaks these agreements, then you have already begun the process of documenting their poor performance, making it easier in future to put in place a Performance Improvement Plan, and ultimately evidence why you are letting that person go from your company.
I love impeccable agreements. They are a forcing function to hold yourself and others accountable. Impeccable agreements mean that you have to consider what is realistic for you to achieve — and then commit to getting it done. They are an excellent tool for driving a culture of excellence.
Start using impeccable agreements in your company, and with yourself. You’ll be amazed at what happens over time when you do.