A New Approach to Contracts

Companies understand that their suppliers are critical partners in lowering costs, increasing quality, and driving innovation, and leaders routinely talk about the need for strategic relationships with shared goals and risks. But when contract negotiations begin, they default to an adversarial mindset and a transactional contracting approach. They agonize over every conceivable scenario and then try to put everything in black-and-white. A variety of contractual clauses—such as “termination for convenience,” which grants one party total freedom to end the contract after a specified period—are used to try to gain the upper hand. However, these tactics not only confer a false sense of security (because both firms’ switching costs are too high to actually invoke the clauses) but also foster negative behaviors that undermine the relationship and the contract itself.

We argue that the remedy is to adopt a totally different kind of arrangement: a formal relational contract that specifies mutual goals and establishes governance structures to keep the parties’ expectations and interests aligned over the long term. Designed from the outset to foster trust and collaboration, this legally enforceable contract is especially useful for highly complex relationships in which it is impossible to predict every what-if scenario. These include complicated outsourcing and purchasing arrangements, strategic alliances, joint ventures, franchises, public-private partnerships, major construction projects, and collective bargaining agreements.

In this article, we look at the theoretical underpinnings of formal relational contracts and lay out a five-step methodology for negotiating them.

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