Tag Archives: Negotiating

Negotiating – how not to manage tension

Last week Rob Cottingham pointed me to ReadWriteStart piece entitled Learn to Negotiate and Close. It’s filled with some good – if unfortunately titled – advice particularly around focusing on listening and not derailing a deal by talking too much (“Two Ears, One Mouth”) as well as speaking to your client/prospective partner’s interests (“Wait Until You Hear Them Scream”). One section, however entitled “Using Tension to your Advantage” felt problematic and tweaked the negotiation consultant in me.

For example, in that section they advocate:

Donald Trump (the real-estate developer), in his book “The Art of the Deal,” talks about guiding the other side to the point that they really want the deal and think it is in the bag. Then he backs off and demands major concessions. Smart buyers everywhere have learned some variation of this tactic.

This is when you get a knot in your stomach and may witness table-banging and raised voices. All of this unpleasant stuff is good news. Experienced deal closers recognize these as signs that a deal is closing. The absence of these signs is actually a cause for concern!

One thread running through all good negotiations is some sign of real pain from the buyer that leaves you confident you are not leaving too much money on the table. Of course, the buyer knows you will be looking for this and will send signals that you have reached their limit. The skill comes in differentiating between fake pain, as in “This is well above our budget, and my boss will kill me if I agree,” and the real thing. The buyer will also be looking for the same signs from you.

From my experience negotiating, this statement is fraught with problems – and can be downright dangerous as advice. Here are a few reasons why:

Shifting Goals

First, unless you are a deeply skilled mind reader, “reading the signs” isn’t an executable strategy. Indeed, the real risk with this strategy is that by adopting it, you shift your goal. You cease to be focused on creating a deal that you would find acceptable and start trying to identify the deal you think your counterpart will be willing to accept. You metric for success moves from what you want (or need), to what you think you think they will accept.

The fact is, you will never know the limit of what you counterpart is willing to accept until they are walking away – and even then, maybe it’s all part of an act? This belief that a good negotiator can tell the difference is simply untrue. Maybe you can read when they are bluffing and when they are not… but I’m willing to bet that however good you think you are, you can’t read them that well. Indeed, you probably have no idea what is going on in their head (just like they probably don’t know what’s going on in your head).

Promotes poor communication

This is the other part of this approach that is problematic. It promotes poor communication, and to be blunt, lying. If I think you are looking for signals that I’ve reached my limit – I’m going to send you those signals, whether you’ve reached my limit or not. In essence, I’m going to lie to you. And if I’m lying about that… what else might I be lying about? This is the dynamic that this approach helps reinforce. Rather than a negotiation that allows us to brainstorm creative solutions or identify what is really important we spend our time dancing around the issues and pour our energy in to focusing on “what signals we are sending?” and trying to “read” them.

The fact is once you tell me something is a deal breaker, and then you compromise on it – I learn that dealbreakers for you aren’t really dealbreakers, they are just efforts to manipulate me. Do that more than once and my trust in anything you say will quickly erode… which will inevitably lead to me to ask myself: why am I doing business with you?

Break down trust

The fact that poor communication breaks down trust isn’t academic. Good negotiations can only occur if there is some basic degree of trust. My willingness to share information, to brainstorm, to see the problem from your perspective are all made easier if I believe I can trust you. Breakdown trust, and you breakdown the very environment needed to create wealth and good outcomes.

If Trump tried to pull that last minute deal changing arrangement on me I’d consider walking away or throwing a bunch of my own last minute demands into the mix. Indeed, I’ve had this happen to clients before and I advise them to say: “Wow, it sounds like you’d like to change the terms of the agreement I thought we’d already agreed upon. If you aren’t happy with those terms I’m willing to reopen the negotiation over them, but have a bunch of terms I’d like to see renegotiated as well. If those issues back to the table, I think I’ll bring forward a number of my own as well.” This usually shuts this strategy down – while they may want to renegotiate pieces of the deal they aren’t thrilled with, they probably aren’t willing to do so at the risk of also renegotiating the parts of the deal they are thrilled with. There is a reason you’ve both come this far – you both believe the deal is mutually acceptable.

The real danger with the Trump strategy however (and the reason I’d seriously consider walking away) is that it underestimates the risks of exploiting the tension.  While some people might cave to Trump, I’d be asking myself the question: do I want to do business with someone who is going to constantly try to exploit me rather than work with me? Maybe Trump’s deals are always purely transactional and he’s never going to work with his counterpart on an ongoing basis. But many deals I work on don’t complete the relationship between the two parties, they start the relationship. Do you want a business partner you can trust, or one that is always seeking not to create wealth, but hive it off for themselves? Worst still – what I am teaching Trump? Every time he adds last minute changes, even if I only cave on one or two of them, I’m teaching him to make last minute demands. I’m helping make this problem worse in the future not better. All this to say that if you don’t have some basic level of trust in the person you are going to work with, are you going to share critical information? Are they going to share it with you? What is the likelihood of your business taking off in that environment? Not that good, I suspect.

Stay focus on your interests and goals

For me, exploiting the tension runs real risk of derailing the negotiation or worse, the relationship with your counterpart (nothing is more toxic than an agreement between two parties in which they hate each other/don’t trust each other, it’s pretty much guaranteed everybody will lose money in that situation). Obviously I have lots of advice around negotiating, but two things I like to keep front and centre are:

First, identify what will make you happy. In short, know your goal – what you need and why. Money is important, but so are other things: stability, duration, trust, good process, the capacity to withstand surprises. All of these (and countless others) might be important to you – figure out what really matters. In addition identify external benchmarks – outcomes from other similar deals – that you can use as reference points. Few deals are genuinely new, most deals are structured around what has occurred before. These are powerful reference points that can be persuasive to the other side (and to your own sense of fairness)

Second, create conditions for a good negotiation. The how you negotiation is as important as the what you negotiate. What irks me about the above advice is that is advocates for a how that promotes poor communication and erodes trust. You and your counterpart can set the rules for how you are going to work together – make sure you do. And remember, you are constantly modelling behaviour regarding how you expect your counterpart to act. Ultimately, some negotiations are going to get nasty – but they don’t all have to be that way and it starts by not assuming they have to be nasty.

Ultimately you can spend your time trying to “read” your counterparts or your can create an environment where you can just ask them. My preference is to focus on the later. In doing so you’re more likely to develop creative outcomes and grow the value of the deal.

sell big-ticket deals, you don’t need that many to reach your revenue targets. If you are getting venture capital to power your dreams, you may need to close only one deal for your venture to succeed. But these deals take a long time to close, almost never less than three months and often twelve months or more. By the time you enter the “closing zone,” you and your teammates have expended a lot of time and energy, your company is relying on you to close the deal, and you are starting to think about what you will do once the deal closes.

This is an exhilarating, scary, dangerous time. Exhilarating because you are so close to a big “high five” success. Scary because if you lose now when you can almost taste success, the disappointment will be bitter. Dangerous because a smart buyer could easily exploit your intense desire to close the deal and force major concessions out of you.

Donald Trump (the real-estate developer), in his book “The Art of the Deal,” talks about guiding the other side to the point that they really want the deal and think it is in the bag. Then he backs off and demands major concessions. Smart buyers everywhere have learned some variation of this tactic.

This is when you get a knot in your stomach and may witness table-banging and raised voices. All of this unpleasant stuff is good news. Experienced deal closers recognize these as signs that a deal is closing. The absence of these signs is actually a cause for concern!

One thread running through all good negotiations is some sign of real pain from the buyer that leaves you confident you are not leaving too much money on the table. Of course, the buyer knows you will be looking for this and will send signals that you have reached their limit. The skill comes in differentiating between fake pain, as in “This is well above our budget, and my boss will kill me if I agree,” and the real thing. The buyer will also be looking for the same signs from you.

Losing your temper is usually not good. It implies a lack of control and usually signals fear and weakness rather than strength. However, sometimes it can be very effective. Negotiators use many tactics to simulate table-banging without killing the deal. You can use the old good cop/bad cop routine, or the “My intransigent boss will never agree to this” line, or you could use a stalking horse to lay down a negotiating line.

Your tactic will depend on the specifics of the sale, but the one constant is that when your stomach gets in a knot, you have probably entered the closing zone, and that is good. We were engineered for fight or flight for a reason!

Microsoft: A case study in mismanaging a business ecosystem

mslogoA lot of fuss has been made about Microsoft’s inability to compete in the online space and the web specifically.  Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that Microsoft was slow to understand the web’s implications and adjust its product lines accordingly. How did the largest, most successful software company in the world fail to predict or even, once the future became clear, effectively adapt to the rise of the internet? More importantly, why hasn’t it been able to acquire its way out of trouble?

Numerous articles have been written on this, many focusing on Microsoft’s strategy and the fact that it likely faced a disruptive innovation problem. I’d like to supplement that analysis by focusing on the predatorial way Microsoft managed and engaged its business ecosystem in the 1990s. I’ve not seen this analysis before so I thought I would throw it out there.

The 1990’s were a good time for Microsoft. It experienced tremendous growth and its operating system was by far the dominant choice in the market place. It had tremendous leverage over everyone in its business ecosystem, including its competitors, customers and complementors. While this was seen as a source of strength (and profit) it also laid the foundation for many of its problems. The story of Microsoft’s competitors in its traditional marketplace – especially those that have adopted an open source space model such as Linux, Mozilla and Apache – is well documented and forms the core of the traditional disruptive innovation thesis. But I think Microsoft’s inability to counter these threats, as well as its inability to compete in new spaces – such as against Yahoo! or Google – isn’t just a result of the fact that it crushed its traditional competitors but also due to the mismanagement of its relationship with its complementors and partners. More importantly, the disruptive innovation thesis fails, on its own, to explain why Microsoft hasn’t been able to acquire itself out of its problems.

I’ve been told that one of Microsoft’s great strengths is that it has fantastic tools for developers (I’m not a coder so I can’t comment myself). However, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft lacked a sophisticated or long-term strategy for engaging the software products and companies those developers created. Given that Microsoft was sitting atop the  computer software ecosystem the company had one goal – staying there. This lead it to view anyone as a potential competitor – or if not a competitor than at least someone eating into profits that it could otherwise capture. Rather than balancing the growth of the value network with trying to capture its fair share, Microsoft prioritized the latter over the former. Consequently, many companies that produced products within the Microsoft ecosystem – particularly for Windows – were often not seen as complementors, but as rivals. Microsoft was aggressive in dealing with them – it was gracious in that it would usually offer to buy them out – on its terms – but always looming in the background was the threat that if you didn’t sell to them they would copy what you did. Consequently, many little companies that designed applications that enhanced Windows were forced to sell – or were put out of business after Microsoft copied their products and integrated them into the operating system.

A business ecosystem is like a natural one. It doesn’t matter how nutrient rich the environment (like say, one with excellent development tools) if emerging lifeforms are consistently snuffed out, pretty soon they will elect to grow and evolve elsewhere – even in places where the nutrients are weaker. This is precisely what I suspect started to happen. Likely, fewer and fewer developers wanted to approach the Microsoft ecosystem with a 10-foot pole because they would either be bought out on unfavorable terms or at an early stage (before they were too valuable) or worse, Mircosoft would simply crush them by using its enormous resources to replicate them and eat into their business.

The repercussion of this is that Microsoft saw fewer and fewer new and innovative products being created for its platforms. Programmers and developers shifted to other platforms, or created whole new platforms where they would be free to grow ideas. This, I believe, prevented Microsoft from understanding how the web would change its business. Not only did its current profits create a disincentive to altering its business strategy but it snuffed out one of the few groups of people that could warn it, educate it and challenge it, about the impending changes – its complementors and partners. Equally important is that it diminished the pool of potential acquisition targets whose culture, technology and processes might have helped Microsoft adapt. There were simply not that many mid-sized mammals in the ecosystem: Microsoft had prevented them from evolving.

Today – based on conversations I’ve had with some people in Microsoft – I get the sense that they are trying to become a better partner (or at at least, they may be aware of the problem). Perhaps Microsoft will succeed in becoming a better partner. It won’t however, be easy. Changes to how one treats complementors and partners often require rethinking the very culture of an organization. This is never an easy or quick process. In addition, it takes time to rebuild trust and attract new blood into the ecosystem… and any misstep will count dearly against you.

There are also almost certainly some interesting lessons in this for other dominant players – such as Google. Will Google behave differently? I don’t know. In many regards Microsoft behaviour was rational. It was seeking to preserve its position and maximize its share of the pie. This was made all the tougher because its market was evolving and the future was unclear. No one knew which pieces of the value network would be critical (and therefor most profitable)  and so Microsoft was simply trying to stake out as many of them as possible. It is easy to imagine Google behaving in a similar manner. But I suspect that if it does, it may also find it hard to escape Microsoft’s fate.

Big thank you to David H. for pointing out some typos and errors.

Negotiating within a coalition – or why Liberals don't trust Jack

So the one thing I glossed over the other day about negotiating in coalitions is that you’d better have already completed your negotiations within your coalition. Reading Andrew Coyne’s blog (among others) suggests that this has not happened. This project seems to have been cooked up by Dion and foisted on the party and there are a few disgruntled MPs starting to emerge from the woodwork.

Toronto MP Jim Karygiannis said “a lot of my constituents” are saying Dion should go. He also complained that MPs had been kept out of the loop on the coalition negotiations.

Just add this on to the further stresses for the coalition. If this thing even begins to teeter, someone is going to have to wear this, and the blame game isn’t going to be pretty.

Another big problem is Jack Layton. Interestingly I think a lot of Liberals are more wary of working with Jack than with Gilles Duceppe. Gilles intentions are always very clear – he’ll do whatever is in Quebec’s interests. Layton’s motivation and history is a little more shaky. Take, for example, that Layton never had to wear the fact that he got us all into this mess three years ago when he helped bring down Paul Martin’s government.

Here was a man who was getting the goodies he wanted added to the budget and yet voted against the Liberals so that he could what… win an extra dozen seats in the house? Layton has had his opportunity to work with Liberals to advance his agenda and he instead opted to give the Conservatives the opportunity they were craving. I suspect the trust threshold between most Liberals and the NDP leadership is so low that it will take real skill to sustain a working partnership.

Again, a common threat can bring people together, but as the threat recedes (the conservatives lose power, or even more intriguing, Harper is forced to resign) then the capacity to work together becomes more important. Canadian political parties have never invested much in this capacity… can they make it work now?

Critical Negotiations in social change movements

Recently I had the good fortune of sharing a tea with Andrea Reimer of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. Our conversation focused on critical negotiations in social change movements – and more specifically, environmental movements.

Andrea pointed me to The Movement Action Plan, an article by social activist Bill Moyer.  The article outlines both the 8 stages (graphed below) a social movement often goes through – as well as the opportunities and pitfalls that exist along this path.

I’ve identified and mapped out (see slideshare presentation below) the 3 points where I believe there are critical and predictable negotiations. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive, nor an absolute list. But based on a number of recent conversations I suspect this simple list of negotiations are both likely as well some of the most difficult for any movement to engage in. That said, I could be wrong and would love for critical perspective or countering data. This would be helpful as this is helping me frame my thinking for the negotiation workshop I’ll be giving on behalf of the Hollyhock Leadership Institute to members of the Environmental NGO community in late April.


  • The first key negotiation is in stage 2 through 4 where the movement’s component groups and individuals need to negotiate with one another about how to best advance their cause. This is, in short, a large alliance management problem where the benefits of collaboration could be increased public awareness and activism.
  • The second is in stage 5. Here the movement has to transition from being purely activist drive to long term focused. Here the movement is confronted again with an internal negotiation – the “take-off junkies” need to be persuaded to either adopt a long-term strategy or take on a new challenge. Alternatively, the movement could attempt to marginalize them.
  • The third is in stage 6 and 7. Here the movement may find it is negotiation – implicitly or explicitly – with the powerholders. Here the option is to reach agreement to establish a new status quo or, should negotiations collapse, to return to either activism or pressure building. This is where I believe many (but not all) Environmental NGO’s in British Columbia currently find themsleves. They are negotiation with the Provincial government over standards, policies and plans where they can either reach agreement or retreat to protest politics. In a sense their ultimate BATNA (and nightmare scenario for the government) is to threaten to engage in another round of the 1993 Clayoquot Sound protests. The question is, can the NGO community negotiate effectively, both with among themselves over their strategy, and with the government over the standards, policies and plans?