social contracts

In leadership, learning, relationships by Jay Clouse

Last week I was in Calgary (Alberta, Canada) speaking at an event called INVENTURE$ by Alberta Innovates. The conference brought together government, entrepreneurs, investors, and big corporate with the goal of new economic development in Alberta, which is historically an oil and gas province.

During my short visit to Calgary, I had the opportunity to meet with some amazing people from Startup Edmonton, Rainforest Alberta, and more.

When I met with Jim Gibson, co-founder of Rainforest Alberta, he talked about something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. (This will take a little bit of a lead in, but I promise I have a larger point).

Rainforest Alberta is an organization based upon a book called The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. The book is en route to my apartment from Amazon, and I haven’t yet read it. But, Jim gave me a little background on the book…

It’s based upon the idea that the rainforest is one of the most advanced and symbiotic ecosystems in the world — but no one controls the rainforest. The different parts of the ecosystem all have their own role that they play.

The idea for organizations like Rainforest Alberta is to align different members of their startup “ecosystem” to agree to the role they play within that ecosystem, so that they can design a symbiotic and thriving whole.

OK, here’s where I get to my point: to align those members, they got those members together and had them sign a literal contract. A social contract.

Social contracts are what I can’t stop thinking about — because they are everywhere. But they aren’t always explicit the way the Rainforest Alberta social contract is explicit.

A social contract is an understanding and agreement between some numbers of parties who interact with one another. When a social contract isn’t explicit, the parties of that agreement are making an assumption that the implicit social contract is a shared understanding.

But that can be dangerous when the assumed roles and responsibilities are not congruent.

This is why your company has an employee handbook — they are creating an explicit social contract so that you avoid misunderstanding, misassumption, and miscommunication.

But social contracts exist in business, friendships, personal relationships, even with ourselves (this is where guilt and your conscious come in).

A lot of times, because “contracts” are uncomfortable, we don’t talk about them. And when they are misunderstood, really bad things can happen.

This is a really long way to reinforce the idiom, “You know what happens when you assume? You make an ASS out of U and ME!” But social contracts are important, and it’s important to know that you’re signing the same one.

PS: Here’s the copy of Rainforest Alberta’s social contract.

PPS:If you’re interested, this was my discussion at INVENTURE$. Matt Helt, the program director for Techstars Startup Week, and I spoke about building startup communities.


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