Obama healthcare moves follow Harvard playbook

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

President Obama’s healthcare reform game plan is classic “3-D Negotiation,” a strategy developed at the Harvard Program on Negotiation.

We have no idea whether the President or his aides are students of the Harvard approach, as set out by Prof. James K. Sebenius, vice chair of the Program on Negotiation, and co-author David Lax, in their book “3-D Negotiation” (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). But the Administration’s health care strategy is certainly consistent with that approach.


  • The first secret of “3-D Negotiation” is to set the table — that is, create the right conditions for success before you ever sit down to negotiate. The President spent months “setting the table” — inviting every conceivable interested party to the discussion, then filling the air with everyone-can-agree ideas like automating health record data and improving efforts at preventive care.
  • Next, proceed in the right sequence. After bringing the parties to the table and putting them in a good mood, the President threw the ball to Congress. Congress did what Congress does; it tossed the ball back and forth while the President looked from on high, nodding the occasional smile of approval.
  • We’re currently approaching the end-stage the of a classic 3-D Negotiation, where the negotiator makes sure the discussion is focused on the right issues and the right set of interests. Thus, the President goes before the American Medical Association, a key interest group, and says he’s now more open to controlling medical malpractice lawsuits … as long as doctors support his overall plan.

Will the President follow our 3-D strategy to the endgame? Here’s how to tell:

  • He’ll make sure he’s negotiating at the right table — the place where his desired outcome can occur — Congress, for example … and that he’s ready to change tables if things go off track — perhaps sidestepping Congress via televised “fireside chats” to the American people.
  • The President will know the consequences of walking away from a deal he can’t buy — and other parties will know that his threat to walk away is not a bluff.

Negotiation is not a talent you’re born with.

It’s a skill that you can learn.

Just as Barack Obama learned his negotiation skills, so can you.

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