Tag Archives: negotiation

Roger Fisher: 1922-2012

Virtually all of my blog readers, and for that matter, much of the world, will not know that on August 25 Roger Fisher passed away.

Roger Fisher was a Harvard academic and adviser to presidents and leaders, and perhaps most importantly – because his writings touched so many people – a co-author of Getting To Yes (along with numerous other books) which outlined and made accessible interest based negotiation theory to the world.

Sadly, his wikipedia page is shockingly short on the scope and range of his work and achievements (I’ve now edited it so it reflects his accomplishments much better). There is little about his important role advising President Carter and the other principals during the negotiations of the Camp David Accords and only passing reference to his role in resolving a long-standing border dispute between Peru and Ecuador. This is to say nothing of the millions of people in the corporate, non-profit and political spheres who have been influenced by his writings and thinking. In an odd way however, the entry is perhaps fitting for a man that was – in my limited experience – exceedingly humble.

Happily a more robust description of Fisher’s accomplishments see this wonderful summary over at the Harvard Law School’s website, here’s a tiny taste:

According to Patton, Fisher’s efforts contributed directly and materially to multiple steps toward peace in the Middle East, including Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, and the Camp David summit that led to an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; peace in Central America and especially in El Salvador; the resolution of the longest-running war in the western hemisphere between Ecuador and Peru; the breakthrough that enabled resolution of the Iranian hostage conflict in 1980; a fundamental reshaping of the U.S.-Soviet relationship; and the negotiations and constitutional process that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa.  (Read the full text of Patton’s tribute here.) Fisher is also recognized as the intellectual father of the “West Point Negotiation Project,” which has trained Army officers and cadets to recognize conflicts and apply the tools of principled negotiation in both peace and war.

For myself, it would not be overstating issues to say that Roger Fisher (along with Ury and Patton) changed my life. Indeed, the ideas found in Getting to Yes have been central to almost everything I’ve done for almost 15 years. Be it my work in open government, public policy, open source and open innovation, community management, or flat out negotiation consulting on things like the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, the ideas that make up interest based negotiation have strongly informed my thinking and made me more effective than I otherwise would ever have been. Frankly, they have made me a better person.

It is, and remains, one of my life’s great privileges that I briefly got to work with Roger. And while he remains someone who helped change the way people work, negotiate and collaborate together, the thing that I always remember about him was the incredible generosity with which he engaged everyone – including a 24 year kid fresh out of graduate school, long on dreams, and short on experience.

In late 2000 I got my first job with a Cambridge based Vantage Partners, a negotiation consulting company spun out of the Harvard Negotiation Project that Roger had helped found in 1983. Word came down from the partners that Roger (who did not work at Vantage) wanted an associate to help him plan and role out an upcoming workshop for a group of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Through enormous good luck (I won a draw) I was the one chosen to help him. I remember being so overwhelmed by the opportunity (could a more striking fanboy moment be imagined?). And so it was that evening when, without warning, Roger called my apartment in Cambridge to talk about the work. Getting a call from Roger Fisher was a little like having my teenage self getting a call from Bono.

But while as high as that conversation made me feel, what really struck me was how much he wanted my opinions and my thoughts about what should happen over the few days that the Israeli’s and Palestinians would be in town. I was dumbstruck that he even wanted to know what I thought, but having him honestly engage my ideas reset all my notions about how those with power can engage those who feel like they have less. Even writing this, I’m struck with how insufficiently I’ve modeled Roger’s capacity to honestly, thoughtfully and respectfully engage almost anyone who feels intimated or having less authority than you.

But the one story that I feel really sums up his character comes from his 80th birthday party at Harvard in 2002. After the dinner and speeches people were mingling and starting to drift home. But Roger and I ended up deep in conversation, discussing possible paths to peace for Israel, the Palestinians and the middle east in general. In fact we become so engrossed we did not notice that virtually everyone had left and it was really just us, and his wife, standing by the door with their jackets, looking slightly displeased.

In that moment, the pieces of Roger Fisher that I knew (again, briefly) were all in play.

Here was a man who I recall feeling personally responsible for helping secure peace in the middle east 20 years earlier. He carried an indescribable personal burden for what he felt was a missed earlier opportunity to help the region as well as a responsibility to make it right.

Here also was man that enjoyed engaging with young people and getting new opinions. Much like the story above I was struck by ho much he wanted to know what I thought. He wanted opinion, and wanted to know how I saw the facts on the ground. It was startling, rewarding, humbling, and frankly, scary, to be taken so seriously.

But finally, and maybe most importantly he was a man so dedicated to his mission of tackling great problems and fulfilling his sense of duty that he even wanted to do it on his 80th birthday. While some may see that as tragic, for me it spoke volumes about the sense of responsibility and duty with which he lived his life.

While a shocking percentage of the world has read, or learned the ideas embedded within, Getting To Yes, few of those people will have known who Roger Fisher was or how he has influenced them. For him, my sense is that was just okay. He was never interested in fame, but rather in solving the worlds most dangerous and intractable problems. While the problems I tackle are more smaller and more humble than the ones he dealt with, I hope I can bring the same dedication, insight and skill that he brought to the table.



How not to woo Liberals

There is no doubt that many Liberals are engaged in some (much needed) deep introspection.

But on the issue of a merger with the NDP Douglas Bell’s piece in the Globe may have been one of the worst thing proponents (on either the NDP or Liberal side) could have asked for.

Bell’s piece, which links to a West Wing clip that ends with the line “there needs to be TWO parties” is beset by all the things NDPers claim to hate about Liberals: smugness, hypocrisy, and callous insensitivity. If this is the opening move in a potential merger, it may have been on of the shortest windows of opportunity in the history of politics.

It begins with the fact that Bell – by choosing this video – suggests that Liberals have rolled over on every major policy issue and lack backbone. For a party whose members likely feel they have innumerable social justice victories under their belt this is not an effort to woo those with ideas and a desire to advance the progressive cause, it is cheap effort to insult them. While I work as a negotiation consultant, you don’t need to be an expert to know that if you are looking to create a partnership, mocking the people you seek to engage isn’t an effective a strategy.

What makes the piece more galling is that Bell himself rejected a proposition in the past. Indeed, only last year Bell noted that a merger might not work and worse, might compromise the NDP. Better, he said, for the NDP to wait until conditions were more in its favour. Of course, now that the tables have turned, Bell expects Liberals to do the very thing he himself was unwilling to do: compromise. If the terms of a merger are do as I say, not as I do, they probably aren’t that appealing. The NDP was patient and successful. Bell’s tone will – I suspect – leave Liberals thinking they’d be better off follow his advice from last year and not his dictate from this week. Plan, build and wait until conditions are more favorably. (Note to Liberals: if it should come to pass, be sure that you write a significantly kinder offer to the NDP.)

But more importantly, the longer term implications of the election are still unknown. Most federalists would agree that if you have several referendums for independence and win only the most recent one, your claim to secede is not completely firm. The same probably applies to elections. The NDP has run in elections for decades. A single “win” which sees it sitting in opposition (not government) does not a viable or sustainable alternative governing party one make. Today the NDP is much, much closer to that goal and its members have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that they can be a national political party that sustains a strong base. Many hope it can. But to simply demand Liberals fold up camp because of a single NDP success (not victory) takes the arrogance of well, the worst type of liberal.

Moreover, speaking of secession votes, there are real risks ahead. It’s worth noting that the NDP’s gains were largely made by opening up the pandora’s box of national unity. As bad as the Liberal’s “snakebite” may be in Quebec, the NDP may have just received its own, far more potent one, the type that bit Muroney. I pray, for the country, they have not. But consider this quote from the NDP’s youngest MP: “What I’ve said throughout the campaign is that sovereignty, we know, won’t happen in Ottawa. As long as Quebec hasn’t decided, why not have a [federal] government in Quebec’s image?… That’s how I campaigned: As long as we’re in Canada, why not have a government in Quebec’s image.” In short, the NDP is a pit stop on the way to sovereignty. If the choice is between defining a progressive agenda at the cost, or defining a progressive agenda within Canada – I suspect that most Liberals (and many Canadians) will choose the latter. Can Layton and the NDP make this coalition stick? And is it a coalition federalists want to be part of? These are tough questions and tradeoffs that will have to be debated. They are also debates that, historically, have ended in tears for all involved.

Does the country need two parties? Unclear. What is clear is that such an end game won’t emerge on the left if the terms of debate are defined by insults. The attitude in Bell’s article suggests that any kind of reconciliation and merger will be much, much more difficult then some people assume. Ultimately, politics is driven by those who believe in a vision they want others to share, to win them over that vision needs to feel inclusive for people, not degrading. I’m sure the post felt fun to write but it is hard to see how it advanced the cause of the NDP.


Some thoughts on improving Bugzilla

One of the keys to making an open source project work is getting feedback from users and developers about problems (bugs) in the code or system. Mozilla (the organization behind Firefox and Thunderbird) uses Bugzilla, but organizations have developed a variety of systems for dealing with this issue. For example, many cities use 311. I’m going to talk about Bugzilla and Mozilla in this case, but I think the lessons can be applied more broadly for some of my policy geek friends.

So first, some first principles. Why does getting the system right matter? A few reasons come to mind:

  1. Engagement: For many people Bugzilla is their first contact with “the community.” We should want users to have a good experience so they feel some affinity towards us and we should want developers to have a great experience so that they want to deepen their level of participation and engagement.
  2. Efficiency: If you have the wrong or incomplete information it is hard (or impossible) to solve a problem, wasting the precious time of volunteer contributors.

I also concede that these two objectives may not always be congruent. Indeed, at times there may be trade offs between them… but I think there is a lot that can be done to improve both.

I’ve probably got more ideas than can fit (or should fit) into one post so I’m going to unload a few. I’ve got more that relate to the negotiation and empathetic approaches I talked about at the Mozilla Summit.

One additional thought. Please feel free to dump all over these. Some changes many not be as simple as I’ve assumed. Others may break or contravene important features I’m not aware of. Happy to engage people on these, please do not see them as an end point, but rather a beginning. My main goal with this first batch of suggestions was to find things that felt easier to do and so could be implemented quickly if there was interest and would help reduce transactions costs right away.

1. Simplifying Menus

First. I thought there were some simple changes that could render the interface cleaner and friendlier. It’s pretty text heavy – which is great for advanced users, but less inviting for newer users. More importantly however, we could streamline things to make it easier for people to onboard.

Take for example, the landing page of Bugzilla. It is unclear to me why “Open a new Account” should be on this page. Advanced users will know they want to file a bug, novices (who may be on the wrong site and who should be looking for support) might believe they have to open and account to get support. So why not eliminate the option altogether. You are going to get it anyways if you click on “File a bug.”





In addition, I got rid of the bottom menu bar (which I don’t think is necessary on this screenƒclu given all the features were along the top as well). I also ditched the Release Notes and User Guide for Bugzilla as I had doubts about whether users were, at this point and on this screen, looking for those things)

2. Gather more information about our users (and, while I’m at it, some more simplifying)

Once you choose to file a bug you get prompted to either log in or create an account. At this point, if you want to create an account. I thought this page was hard to read with the text spanning the whole width, plus, there is some good info we could gather about users at this point (the point it feels they are mostly likely going to add to their profile).




Couple things a like about this proposed screen.

One, if you are a lost user just looking for support we likely snag you before you fill out a bugzilla account. My feeling is the bugzilla is a scary place that most users shouldn’t end up in… we need to give people lots of opportunities to opt for support before diving in, in case that is what they really need.

Second, in this proposed version we tell people to read the bugzilla guidelines and suggest using an alternate email before they punch their email into the email field box.

In addition, we ask the user for their real name now (as opposed to relying on them to fill it out later). This nudge feels important as the more people with real names on the site, the more I think people will develop relationships with one another. Finally we ask people if English is their second language and if this is their first open source project.

Finally, with the extra data fields we can help flag users as ESL or new and thus in need of more care, patience and help as they on-ramp (see screen shots below). We could even modify the Bugzilla guidelines to inform people to provide newbies and ESL’s with appropriate respect and support.






I imagine that your “newbie” status would disappear either when you want (some sort of preference in your profile) or after you’ve engaged in a certain amount of activity.

3. Make life easier for users and the triage guys

Here is an idea I had talking with some of the triage guys at the Mozilla Summit.

Let’s suppose that someone submits a bug that isn’t really a bug but a support issue. I’m informed that this happens with a high degree of frequency. Would it be nice if, with a click of a mouse, the triage guys could move that bug out of Bugzilla and into a separate database (ideally this would be straight into SUMO, but I respect that this might not be easy – so just moving it to a separate database and de-cluttering bugzilla would be a great first start – the SUMO guys could then create a way to import it). My sense is that this simply requires creating a new resolution field – I’ve opted to call it “Support” but am happy to name it something else.




This feels like a simple fix and it would quickly move a lot of bugs that are cluttering up bugzilla… out. This is important as searches for bugs often return many results that are support oriented, making it harder to find the bugs you are actually searching for. Better still, it would get them somewhere where they could more likely help users (who are probably waiting for us to respond).

Of course, presently bugzilla will auto generate an email that looks like the first one and this isn’t going to help. So what if we did something else?





Here is the auto-generated email I think we should be sending users whos bugs get sent to SUMO. I’ve proposed a few things.

First, if these are users who’ve submitted inappropriate bugs and who really need support, giving them a bugzilla email isn’t going to help them, they aren’t even going to know how to read it.

Second, there is an opportunity to explain to them where they should go for help – I haven’t done that explicitly enough in this email – but you get the idea

Third, when the bug gets moved to SUMO it might be possible to do a simple key word analysis of the bug and, from that, determine what are the most likely support articles they are looking for. Why don’t we send them the top 3 or 5 as hyperlinks in the email?

Fourth, if this really is a bug from a more sophisticated user, we give them a hyperlink back to bugzilla so they can make a note or comment.

What I like about this is it is customized engagement at a low cost. More importantly, it helps unclutter things while also making us more responsive and creating a better experience for users.

4. Make Bugzilla Celebrate, enhance our brand and build community

Okay, so here’s the thing that really bugs me about bugzilla. If we want to be onramping people and building community, shouldn’t we celebrate people’s successes? At the moment this is the email you get from Bugzilla when a bug you’ve submitted gets patched:

BORING! Here, at the moment of maximum joy, especially for casual or new bugzilla participants we do nothing to engage or celebrate.

This, is what I think the auto-generated bugzilla email should look like.


Yes, I agree that hard core community members probably won’t care about these types of bugs, but for more casual participants this is an opportunity to explain how open source and mozilla works (the graphic) as well as a chance to educate them. I’ve even been more explicit about this by offering links to a) explain the open web, b) learn about mozilla and open source; and c) donate to the foundation (given this is a moment of pride for many non-developer end users)

Again, I’m not overly attached to this design per se, it would just be nice to have something fun, celebratory and mozillaesque.

Okay, it is super late and I’m on an early flight tomorrow. Would love feedback on all or any of this for those who’ve made it this far. I’ll be sharing more thoughts, especially on empathetic nudges and community management in bugzilla ASAP.

When a Citizen Dialogue is really just a Mob

Two years ago I wrote this piece outlining how Citizen Assemblies violate the conditions Surowiecki outline as necessary to create a wise crowd. My point was to show how there is a fine line between when a dialogue becomes a group monologue, or worse, just a mob. Those who engage in policy discussions need to be aware of where this line lies lest they accidentally confuse consensus and agreement with silent coercion.

I experienced this problem a few months ago while attending an Imagine BC Leaders’ Summit, A Dialogue on Habitat, Health and Livelihoods :10 Big Ideas to Shape a Resilient Future. The day long event included 180+ leaders and interested parties from different sectors and was supposed to cap off discussions that had been going on about the future of British Columbia. But rather than be an open dialogue, the discussion was intensely closed and, to be frank, bordered on fascist.

Things started off innocently enough. The conversation opened up with a number of participants strongly advocating that British Columbia, and the world, needed a zero growth economy. The term was never explained or explored, but it was made clear that continued economic growth was impossible and threatened the plant. I felt concerned that a group of people who could afford to take an entire workday off to talk about the future would suggest that a zero growth economy was necessary (as quickly as possible) especially in a world where over a billion people live under $1 a day. I suspect that the underlying interest in zero-growth had to do with environmental sustainability but nobody used an alternative term such as a sustainable economy, ecologically sensitive economy or carbon neutral economy. No, it had to be zero-growth. Such an outcome is great if you’ve already got wealth, but it necessarily marginalizes those that don’t. The topic however, was less important than the process. A few people (including me) voiced our concern over the zero growth term in a smaller breakout session but never in the plenary discussion. I asked some of the other concerned voices why they didn’t speak up: most had concluded within the first 30 minutes of the day that speaking out on environmental issue simply wasn’t safe. I had to agree – I wasn’t speaking up either.

Of course, once a group appears to have consensus – because alternative perspectives have censored themselves – it doesn’t take long for the conversation to move into some disturbing places. Back in the plenary discussion the group had concluded that imminent environmental catastrophe was the pressing issue of our time and all other issues were subordinate or secondary. The conversation then quickly shifted to assessing why people outside the room (the general public that is) didn’t feel the same sense of urgency. In a conversation that would have made the authors of The Death of Environmentalism shudder with familiarity, at no point was there any introspection about how the people in the room had failed t engage others effectively. Instead, exogenous factors were immediately cited. Specifically, two emerged as key problems. First, the educational system wasn’t advocating “the groups” point of view sufficiently and second, the political structures discriminated against their issue specifically. The conclusion, the school system needed to be taken over so as to appropriately educate people and the electoral system needed to be reformed so as to produce outcomes the group favoured.

If that doesn’t sound like a scary or fascist conversation, imagine the same conversation structure, but with this subject.

In a dialogue setting a group of evangelical Christians determine that most pressing issue is the fast approach day of rapture and, due to lack of awareness and concern, many souls would not be saved. They conclude that the reason people don’t care about the rapture isn’t because evangelicals haven’t been effective at reaching out and engaging people but because a) they don’t control the educational system, and b) the political system is structured to not favour their issue. They conclude that must take over the schools and so kids can be taught Christian values and that the electoral system needs rejigging to produce outcomes that favours “Christian” issues.

Same conclusions, different subject matter.

This is why dialogues have to so carefully facilitated. It isn’t hard for them to become a mob and for the discussion to get angry and totalitarian.

Oh, and a final note. During the afternoon, in a moment you couldn’t have scripted, the fascist subtext of the conversation became explicit. During the Q&A after Thomas Homer-Dixon’s presentation, one participant asked “Your data on ecological collapse is terrifying. But enough isn’t being done. Do we have to take a page out of history and get the jackboots and the brownshirts out and just mobilize aggressively?” (I really almost lost it when this question was asked). Homer-Dixon, to his credit, was clearly taken aback and ran the other direction outlining that such an approach was not an appropriate solution. Jackboots? Brownshirts? We weren’t a dialogue anymore, we were a mob. At least now it was explicit.

SXSWi Panel: Fostering Collaborative Open Source Communities

Yesterday I saw this academic journal article and was reminded about how an individuals behaviour can negatively impact and groups productivity. In his article “Overlooked but not untouched: How incivility reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks.” in the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (109: 29-44) Amir Erez describes how even just witnessing rudeness resulted in diminished creativity, increased one’s own negative behaviour, damaged productivity and short term memory.

This is a perfect example of why I believe we need open source communities to foster collaborative cultures that nudge people to engage in positive and constructive ways.

In pursuit of talking about this more, I’ve put together a presentation proposal for SXSWi in which I’d like to build on my FSOSS presentation (which has logged over 15000 views since going up on SlideShare.net two years ago) on how the skills and tools from the field of negotiation and collaboration can help improve community management and productivity in open source communities. If this sounds at all interesting to you, I’m hoping that you’ll consider going to the SXSWi Panel Picker website and voting for this panel.

Since FSOSS 2008 I’ve done more research and work in the area and so have more examples to share out of the open source space. In addition, I’ve been working with Diederik Van Liere at the University of Toronto’s business school trying to get data around how behaviour impacts a open source community’s effectiveness.


Fostering Collaborative Open Source Communities


Community management is a core competency of open source. So what skills, tools and culture can facilitate and enable collaboration? Drawing from negotiation theory David shares what open source project participants can do to foster sustainable and effective collaborative communities where conflict is productive and not soul-sucking or time consuming.

Questions Answered:

  1. What skills does an open source project leader need
  2. How to a minimize destructive conversations?
  3. How can I encourage participation in my open source project?
  4. How do enable members of my open source community to work together better?
  5. What is negotiation theory?
  6. Someone is being a troll in my discussion group. What do I do?
  7. How can I attract more users to my open source project?
  8. How can I make my open project contributors more effective?
  9. I don’t like arguing with people, what should I do?
  10. I think I may be abrasive, what should do?


Community / Online Community, Open Source, Self-Help /Self-Improvement, User Experience

Creating the Open Data Bargain in Cities

Embedded below is the talk I’ve given to both community hackers (at Open Web Vancouver) as well as City of Vancouver Staff regarding the opportunities and challenges around open data and the open motion. (Here’s an update on where Vancouver is at courtesy of some amazing work by city staff).

For those willing to brave through the presentation (or simply fast forward to the end) one piece I felt is most important is the talk’s last section which outlines what I term “The Bargain” in a reference to the informal contract Clay Shirky says exists between every Web 2.0 site and their users.

The bargain comes last, because it matters only if there is a promise (open and shared data) and a set of tools (applications languages) that are already working together. The bargain is also the most complex aspect of a functioning group, in part because it is the least explicit aspect and in part because it is the one the users have the biggest hand in creating, which means it can’t be completely determined in advance… A bargain helps clarify what you can expect of others and what they can expect of you.

Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody (my italics, page 270)

I believe that in an open city, a similar bargain exists between a government and its citizens. To make open data a success and to engage the community a city must listen, engage, ask for help, and of course, fulfil its promise to open data as quickly as possible. But this bargain runs both ways. The city must to its part, but so, on the flip side, must the local tech community. They must participate, be patient (cities move slower than tech companies), offer help and, most importantly, make the data come alive for each other, policy makers and citizens through applications and shared analysis.

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!

why collaborative skills matter in open source

For the past several years now I’ve been talking about how community management – broadly defined as enhancing a community’s collaborative skills, establishing and modeling behaviour/culture and embedding development tools and communications mediums with prompts that “nudge” us towards collaborative behaviour – is imperative to the success of open source communities. (For those interested in this, my FSOSS 2008 on the subject has been slidecasted here, and is on on google video here.

Re-reading Shirkly’s latest book, Here Comes Everybody, has re-affirmed my thinking. Indeed, it’s made me more aggressive. Why? Consider these two paragraphs:

This ability of the traditional management structure to simplify coordination helps answer one of the most famous questions in all of economics: If markets are such a good idea, why do we have organizations at all? Why can’t all exchanges of value happen in the market? This question originally was posed by Ronald Coase in 1937 in his famous paper “The Nature of the Firm,” wherein he also offered the first coherent explanation of the value of hierarchical organization. Coase realized that workers could simply contract with one another, selling their labor, and buying the labor of others in turn, in a market, without needing any managerial oversight. However, a completely open market for labor, reasoned Coase, would underperform labor in firms because of the transaction costs, and in particular the costs of discovering the options and making and enforcing agreements among the participating parties. The more people are involved in a given task, the more potential agreements need to be negotiated to do anything, and the greater the transaction costs…

And later, Shirky essentially describes the thesis of his book:

But what if transaction costs don’t fall moderately? What if they collapse. This scenario is harder to predict from Coase’s original work, at it used to be purely academic. Now’s it not, because it is happening, or rather it has already happened, and we’re starting to see the results.

My conclusion: the lower the transaction costs, the greater the playing field will favour self-organizations systems like open source communities and the less it will favour large proprietary producers.

This is why open source communities should (and do) work collectively to reduce transaction costs among their members. Enabling the further collapse of transaction costs tilts the landscape in our favour. Sometimes, this can be down in the way we architect the software. Indeed, this is why – in FirefoxAdd-Ons are so powerful. The Add-On functionality dramatically reduces transaction costs by creating a dependable and predictable platform, essentially allowing coders to work in isolation from one another (the difference between collaborative vs. cooperative). This strategy has been among the most successful. It is important and should be pursued, but it cannot help collapse transaction costs for all parts of a project – especially the base code.

But what more can be done? There are likely diminishing returns to re-architecting the software and in finding new, easier ways, to connect developers to one another. The areas I think offer real promise include:

  • fostering cultures within open source communities that reward collaborative (low transaction cost) behaviour,
  • promoting leaders who model collaborative (low transaction cost) behaviour
  • developing tools and communications mediums/methods that prompt participants to improve the noise to signal, minimize misunderstandings, limit unnecessary conflict, and help resolve differences quickly and effectively (the idea being that all of these outcomes lower transactions costs).

This is why I continue to think about how to port over the ideas, theories and tools from the negotiation/collaboration field, into the open source space.

For open source communities, eliminating transaction costs is a source of strategic advantage – one that we should find ways to exploit ruthlessly.

Bureaucracies and New Media: How the Airforce deals with blogs

A friend forwarded me this interesting diagram that is allegedly used by the United States Air Force public affairs agency to assess how and if to respond to external blogs and comments that appear upon them.

Airforce Blog Reaction

It’s a fascinating document on many levels – mostly I find it interesting to watch how a command and control driven bureaucracy deals with a networked type environment like the blogosphere.

In the good old days you could funnel all your communications through the public affairs department – mostly because there were so few channels to manage – TV, radio and print media – and really not that many relevant actors in each one. The challenge with new media is that there are both so many new channels emerging (YouTube, twitter, blogs, etc…) that public affairs departments can’t keep up. More importantly, they can’t react in a timely fashion because they often don’t have the relevant knowledge or expertise.

Increasingly, everyone in your organization is going to have to be a public affairs person. Close off your organizations from the world, and you risk becoming irrelevant. Perhaps not a huge problem for the Air Force, but a giant problem for other government ministries (not to mention companies, or the news media – notice how journalists rarely ever respond to comments on their articles…?).

This effort by a bureaucracy to develop a methodology for responding to this new and diverse media environment is an interesting starting point. The effort to separate out legitimate complaints from trolls is probably wise – especially given the sensitive nature of many discussions the Air Force could get drawn into. Of course, it also insulates them from people who are voicing legitimate concerns but will simply be labeled as “a troll.”

Ultimately however, no amount of methodology is going to save an organization from its own people if the underlying values of the organization are problematic. Does your organization encourage people to treat one another with respect, does it empower its employees, does it value and even encourage the raising of differing perspectives, is it at all introspective? Social media is going to expose organizations underlying values to the public, the good, the bad and the ugly. In many instances the picture will not be pretty. Indeed, social media is exposing all of us – as individuals – and revealing just exactly how tolerant and engaging we each are individually. With TV a good methodology could cover that up – with social media, it is less clear that it can. This is one reason why I believe the soft skills are mediation, negotiation and conflict management are so important, and why I feel so lucky to be in that field. Its relevance and important is only just ascending.

Methodologies like that shown above represent interesting first starts. I encourage governments to take a look at it because it is at least saying: pay attention to this stuff, it matters! But figuring out how to engage with the world, and with people, is going to take more than just a decision tree. We are all about to see one another for what we really are – a little introspection, and value check, might be in order…

Blogging: Dealing with difficult comments

Embedded below is an abridged version (10 minutes!) of my 2009 Northern Voice presentation on managing and engaging the community the develops around one’s blog. Specifically, one goals of this presentation was to pull in some of the thinking from the negotiation and conflict management space and see how it might apply to dealing with people who comment on your blog. Hopefully, people will find it interesting.

Finally, a key lesson that came to me while developing the presentation is that most blogs, social media projects, and online projects in general, really need a social contract – or as Skirky describes it, a bargain – that the organizer and the community agree to. Often such contracts (or bargains) are strongly implied, but I believe it is occasionally helpful to make them explicit – particularly on blogs or projects that deal with contentious (politics) or complicated (many open source projects) issues.

At 8:43 in the presentation I talk about what I believe is the implicit bargain on my site. I think about codifying it, especially as a I get more and more commentors. That said, the community that has developed around this blog – mostly of people I’ve never met –  is fantastic, so there hasn’t been an overwhelming need.

Finally thank you to Bruce Sharpe for posting a video of the presentation.

So, I hope this brief presentation is helpful to some of you.

(Notice how many people are coughing! You can tell it was winter time!)