Project Manager Tips for Successful Negotiating

What do you do when you cannot get what you need or want by simply asking (or using brute force — as appealing as that might be)?  Negotiation is one way to get most of what you want when you run into this situation.  Negotiation may involve a simple two-person dialogue (I want Joe Smith to head up testing on the new product before its release; you want Joe to stay with testing the current product; the boss says work it out between yourselves.) Your intelligent scheduling software will not assign Joe full-time to both jobs. So, negotiating an agreement is required.

Negotiation comes into play for simple decision making such as where to go for lunch or what time to should we meet to complex decisions about product pricing, developing a new approach, selecting a team leader, or putting together names for a lay-off list. As project manager, you are negotiating for your team and yourself.

Prepare for Negotiations:
Decide what you want from the negotiations and the minimum you can live with. In between what you want and can live with are the things that you have to trade in negotiations. Ask yourself what the other person wants and what they have to trade — be realistic and acknowledge the justness of their needs. If possible, breakup the total need into small bites of activity or resources. Sometimes small agreements can be achieved without a total victory.

Outside of the specific resource or activity under negotiations, consider what else you have available to “trade”. For example, think about a basketball team that needs a strong forward. The team may put up money, other players, or draft choices to negotiate the release of a player they want. Be flexible on parameters that do not matter to achieving your goal. Start times, hours, days, location, reporting chain, end time, cost, and long-term ownership are all possible areas of negotiation.

Strategies for Negotiations:
Sonshi’s “Intelligent Approaches to Conflict Resolution and Competition” provides wise advice to the beginning negotiator summarized as: 

  • Negotiation is mostly about listening.
  • Negotiation requires give and take. If you can figure out a way to give the other person something important to them while getting what you want, you have a win-win situation.
  • “Be human. Don’t try be clever. In fact, don’t display cleverness. Talk softly and be pleasant. You’re trying to have him be on your side. Share your troubles and problems if need be. You’re not trying to outsmart anyone here — you’re trying to obtain an amicable agreement with another person. When she realizes she is not going against a ruthless opponent but rather someone who’s a real person, she’ll drop her guard and work with you. Isn’t that what you want in the first place?”
  • “If time is of the essence to you, you are at a great disadvantage. Where you must obtain a resolution with the other party by a certain date, she may not be in such a rush. Because of this fact, she can walk away from the negotiation table causing you to give up something valuable just to reach an agreement. Therefore, make sure you’re not constrained by time. Even if you are, do not display it.”

In terms of negotiation strategy, Anatol Rapoport, a mathematical psychologist offered a simple and provably effective negotiation strategy called tit-for-tat. This was used to solve the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma used in game theory to optimize conditions that facilitate cooperation between two parties with conflicting goals. (For more information, see History of Tit for Tat)  According to tit-for-tat, two players have two choices: either cooperate or defect. The best strategy to a successful negotiation is to begin by cooperating (perhaps on one of those little items you identified when breaking down the bigger task). Then on your next move, you do whatever the other person did – so if they cooperate, you cooperate again. If they defect – that is refusing to make an offer – you retaliate by removing your offer or something else of value to the other person.

In studying successive evaluation of the tit-for-tat strategy, four rules emerged:

  • Never be the first to defect
  • Retaliate only after the other party has defected
  • Be prepared to forgive after carrying out just one act of retaliation
  • Adopt this strategy only if the probability of meeting the same player again exceeds 2/3

Sample dialogue – your project needs senior QA and test from a matrix organization. The manager says he can’t meet your project schedule:

(YOU)Make an offer: “The project begins May 1, but I can wait until September 1 to get Joe’s help”.
(THEM) Cooperative response: “Joe is on a project until December”
(THEM) Defecting response: “I can’t ever imagine Joe having any time available in the foreseeable future”

(YOU responding to cooperative response): “Mary Sue in QA my other project can be made available to help you from September through December.”

(YOU responding to defecting response): “Your department needs to hire another QA. my project has high management visibility and I would hate to report that we can’t make schedule because of failure to do QA.”

A couple final thoughts on successful negotiating techniques:

  • Think out of the box. There may be several ways to get what you both want.
  • Do not be afraid to invite an objective third party – one without a stake in the decision – to participate in the discussion. They may have new ideas that are not clouded by preconceived notions of “how this needs to be done” and will be less emotionally involved in the give and take.

If you really want to get better at negotiation I suggest taking a course  – here is the one that I took:
Karrass seminar on Negotiating –


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