Everyday Ingenuity

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from the Negotiation newsletter.

Negotiation expert Roger Fisher sagely counsels, “Solutions are not the answer.” Instead of tossing demands back and forth on their way to an outcome, negotiators should focus on the process of exploring their underlying needs and interests. Get the process right, and practical solutions often follow.

But process still depends on the creativity of those at the bargaining table. If negotiators are mired in old mindsets, good process skills may not bail them out. In their book Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), economist Barry Nalebuff and legal scholar Ian Ayres suggest four mental habits to spark creativity:

1. Forget about resource constraints (at least for the moment). Imagining how you’d solve the problem if there were no limits on time and money can open up new options. Do you need to accomplish all of your goals right away, for example? Maybe you can set some issues aside temporarily and reframe possibilities for agreement.

2. Identify externalities. Will your negotiation have an impact, positive or negative, on other stakeholders? If so, they may have added resources to bring to the bargaining table. Consider extending an invitation.

3. Ransack other people’s experience. Your counterpart may be skeptical about whether you can deliver all that you are promising. Studying others’ successful negotiations may lead to a breakthrough. You might borrow a page from sports contracts, for example, and build in some performance incentives.

4. Flip things upside down. An obstacle to one agreement can be the heart of another. A service company owner, seeking to expand his business, tried to buy out a competitor, but the price proved to be far too high. Instead of giving up on the deal, he flipped it by selling his own company for a handsome return that allowed him to expand into other areas. While urging us to be free of false constraints, Nalebuff and Ayres also stress the complementary value of thinking inside the box—focusing on a manageable and feasible set of solutions.

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