How to Agree on Deliverables Quickly and Clearly

You can prevent misunderstandings and get your whole team on the same page by using the simple tool of an IS-IS NOT list.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #475

pros-cons-sheet is-isnot-sheet

Clarity. We need it. Desperately. All too often, we make agreements with other humans, only to find out later that we thought we’d agreed on one thing, and they thought we’d agreed on another. Surprise! And not a happy one. But there’s a quick and easy way to get 90% of the agreement with 10% of the work.

After much rumination, Bernice decided to add a new plant species to the inventory at her Green Growing Things plant stores.

Like any good boss, Bernice values her employees’ opinions. So she asked for recommendations. “Bring me plants we should add to our lineup!” Her employees Melvin, Europa, Xris, and Thomas leapt to the challenge, bringing back pretty awesome suggestions.

“Dandelions!” proclaimed Melvin. “Lots and lots of dandelions!” “Audrey IIIs. They’re the bomb!” suggested Thomas. And of course “Baobab trees!” were Europa’s recommendation. 

Bernice took one look at the list and instantly realized that none of these would do. Her team was smart, so what was the problem? How could they be so wrong?

Of course, they aren’t wrong. And neither is Bernice. The problem is communication. “Bring me plants we should add to our lineup” is so general that the team could bring any kind of plant, including a coal-burning power plant, and it would fit that bill.

One tiny tool can help Bernice bring clarity and understanding when setting up agreements: an IS, IS-NOT sheet.

Use an IS/IS-NOT sheet to bring clarity

To create an IS/IS-NOT sheet, grab a fresh piece of paper. At the top of the paper, write your vague phrase. Draw a single vertical line down the middle. Label one side “IS,” and the other side “IS NOT.” Then, with the help of the people you need clarity with, fill in each side with what the vague phrase IS or IS NOT.

Bernice would label her page, “Plants we should add to our lineup.” Off the bat, the team can agree on a few characteristics IS'es: the plant IS cost-effective and greenhouse compatible (they’re a plant store, after all).

Bernice’s shmoopie, Melvin, adds “pretty to look at” to the IS side. There’s some debate, but the team agrees. Thomas, normally lost in his headphones as any teenage boy would be, surprised everyone by tossing in, “it should be highly functional, since we disapprove of monotasking plants.” The team also agrees to add “is alive” to the IS section, just in case some team member brings up coal-fired power plants as a type of plant. I can’t imagine who they’re thinking of.

Xris notices that many of the store’s plants are either poisonous or carnivorous. They suggest that new additions to the lineup should be safe to eat, so the store can become more popular with suburban stay-at-home parental units. The team agrees.

IS-NOT draws boundaries.

The IS-NOT side of the page is used to rein in the options. Undesirable characteristics go there straightaway. A new plant should NOT be microscopic (so much for Bernice’s pet project, seasonal plankton). 

As the group creates their IS NOT list, they can instantly see why the earlier suggestions didn’t work. A new addition to the store IS NOT to be found everywhere in the wild (goodbye, dandelions). It IS NOT to be actively deadly to customers (there go Audrey IIIs). And it IS NOT a tree that could take over an entire planet (so much for Baobab trees).

IS/IS-NOT sheets provide a quick and easy way for a team to establish a common understanding of a goal.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.