I spent hours preparing and trying to consider all of the strategic factors that would affect our potential partner’s evaluation. I brainstormed with colleagues, tested our presentation on others in the field, and tried to step into his shoes to list his anticipated needs and interests. Overall, I did my strategic homework.
And the ramifications were significant: If he liked our product, his positive impression could move us significantly forward. If not, we would have to redouble our efforts for this target market.
Our meeting time was set. But our meeting did not go exactly as planned. In fact, it took some twists and turns we did not anticipate — and they were significant.
Fortunately, our result still was positive. But those unanticipated shifts highlighted some critical negotiation elements that can serve as lessons for us all.
1. Planning is critical, but so is flexibility.
A fundamental element of negotiating strategically, based on what the research tells us — and getting away from off-the-cuff, instinctive negotiating — involves comprehensive planning. And the planning must be for the process of negotiation as well as for learning about the issues on the table.
But it’s impossible to plan for every contingency and possible move in a negotiation. So what should we do? Consider the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”
Do your strategic due diligence before you sit down at the table or pick up the telephone. But don’t become too wedded to your plan or too inflexible about your anticipated moves or countermoves.
During our above-described meeting, my potential partner took issue with an element of our product that I had never doubted. But it appeared significant to him.
What did I do? I listened, asked him about it, suggested a way to satisfy his concern and proceeded to the next part of my presentation.
In retrospect, I should have done more listening, more asking and more considering how to satisfy his stated concerns. And then — after I had fully explored his needs and interests — I should have explored with him various ways to satisfy them.
Then, and only then, I should have continued my presentation.
Our lesson: Plan strategically and comprehensively — then, when faced with the unexpected, take a breath, get more information, be open to change and don’t be afraid to move in an unanticipated direction. Flexibility is key.
2. Listen carefully to the strength of your counterparts’ interests.
In another recent negotiation, our goal was to get our counterpart to commit to our plan during our telephone conversation. And while our counterpart appeared willing to give that commitment, several of his seemingly offhand comments suggested to us that he wasn’t fully ready to move forward.
We needed a full commitment to ensure our mutual long-term success. So we took a step back, extended our goals and timeline, revised our negotiation plan and put off the commitment for several weeks.
Our critical step: Carefully and intently listening to everything our counterpart said and evaluating not only his interests, but also the strength of his interests.
3. Step back and re-evaluate.
Unexpected twists and turns in a negotiation can be disconcerting to those who have spent a significant amount of time strategically preparing and trying to anticipate everything.
Here’s my advice: Don’t be disconcerted. But also, don’t automatically throw out your entire plan. Instead, take a step back when the unexpected occurs. View it as an opportunity to re-evaluate your negotiation plan using the new information you learned. Then decide how to proceed.
A successful business colleague recently told me how many changes in direction he experienced between the time he started his company and when he sold it. Based on the number of changes, you might think it reflected a lack of a consistent strategic vision.
That would be the wrong conclusion. In that case, the number of directional changes reflected the changing needs of his customers and his ability to take advantage of that information.
So, when you hit an unanticipated bump in the road, stop your car; find out more about the issue at hand, including its severity; and then re-evaluate your road map and how you want to get from A to B.
You might even find a more efficient and effective alternate route.
Correction: Several Clint Eastwood fans noticed that I misquoted Dirty Harry in last month’s column and inadvertently used a combination of lines from two of his movies. I apologize for the inaccuracy, which I took from an online source. My mistake. The correct quote from “Sudden Impact” is “Go ahead, make my day.”
Published July 13, 2007 The Business Journal