Why Classic Cases?

By on / Daily, Negotiation Skills, Pedagogy at the Program on Negotiation (Pedagogy @ PON)

Why are some negotiation exercises still used in a great many university classes even twenty years after they were written? In an effort to understand more about the enduring quality of some classic teaching materials, we asked faculty affiliated with PON to explain why they think some role play simulations remain bestsellers in the Clearinghouse year after year.

The people we interviewed are faculty who wrote popular cases for very different reasons. Bruce Patton, co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and one of the authors of Sally Soprano, described the most important learning points that students can learn by playing this game in a basic negotiation course. The exercise challenges students to figure out what they can do when their BATNA is weak. It also teaches students to think about the errors people might make in setting their aspirations lower than they need to. Finally, and most important, it helps students in less than an hour explore the essential differences between principled negotiation and positional bargaining.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Lawrence Susskind, co-founder of PON and professor at MIT, wrote two popular multi-party negotiations, Harborco and the World Trade Center game. He credits Harborco‘s success to the fact that it approximates a multi-party negotiation that students can play in a very short period of time with scoreable results. It also teaches students how to respond to spoilers and how to deal with blocking coalitions.

Jeswald Salacuse, Professor of Law at the Fletcher School, wrote the Enco and MedLee simulations for students studying international business negotiation. His purpose was to show students how they can handle the challenges involved in preparing for and carrying out cross-cultural negotiations. These two games highlight the divergent assumptions and perspectives that often arise from cultural differences.

Many of the Clearinghouse bestsellers underscore discrete teaching lessons that are central to interest-based negotiation. Bruce Patton talks about the importance and difficulty of creating two plausible and coherent, yet clashing viewpoints. “Enduring cases have to tell a persuasive, internally consistent story from each party’s point of view. But the two are very much at odds; so, when you read both, you get different ‘ah has’.” He emphasized that writing “cases that sing” is not as easy as some people might assume. He attributes the success of the cases he’s worked on to a process of rigorous evaluation and revision. A number of interviewees referred to the thoroughness required to write a good teaching game. The designer has to make sure that there are no holes or information that one side knows that the other should not.

Daniel Shapiro, Associate Director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, described some of the classic cases as both accessible and sophisticated. “Some of the classic PON cases, like Sally Soprano and Oil Pricing, boil very complex dynamics down to essential structures. That is their gift. Sally Soprano has an elegant structure that more clearly than any other case raises the critical elements of interest-based negotiation… The participant can immediately see during a debrief what the benefits of interest-based negotiation are over a more adversarial process.”

Robert Bordone, Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program, pointed out a pedagogical advantage to an exercise like Sally Soprano. “Since most people don’t know anything about opera, they will not be able to fight about content. Instead they’ll talk more about behaviors and moves, and not the details of what is right.” For his basic negotiation courses, he tries to use exercises that take students out of the context with which they are most familiar. He wants to make sure they focus on skill building and behaviors that work.

Michael Wheeler, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, discussed his top PON Clearinghouse sellers Appleton vs. Baker and Tendley Contract, explaining that classic cases are crisp, but contextually rich, and allow the instructor to extract concrete lessons about the fundamentals of negotiation. In particular, when taught in sequence, Wheeler said, “the instructor can use these two cases as prototypes for comparison and synthesis.” One practical consideration is the strict time budget instructors often have to work with. These classic games have rich teachable lessons that can be developed within very strict time constraints.

Jeswald Salacuse credited many cases’ enduring popularity to the accompanying teaching notes that offer well-crafted and extensive advice on how to organize class discussions. Similarly, Robert Bordone credited part of Powerscreen‘s popularity to the optional supplements that the Clearinghouse provides, like the Seven Element Prep Sheet, that make it easier for instructors to get to the most important lessons and insights that are aiming to convey.

Some interviewees suggested that the exercises listed above might continue to be popular because teachers prefer to keep using the cases they know.  As their mastery of the teaching material improves so does the impact they have on their students. When a game or an exercise works well, there is often little incentive to seek out others.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Looking Ahead

Although a number of the Clearinghouse bestsellers have anchored the teaching of interest-based negotiation thus far, a number of interviewees point to the fact that the field has broadened and deepened rather substantially since the classics games and exercises were written. Many of the most popular cases tend to be used in basic negotiation courses, but now more schools and training programs want to move on to advanced instruction. New frames for understanding other features of negotiation will require new cases to teach new skills.

Lawrence Susskind described identity- and value-based conflicts as one focus for advanced negotiation instruction. Interests are tradeable, but values and identity are not. He asked, “What do you do when the outcome of a dispute resolution effort is not likely to be resolution? Can we teach students how to reconcile conflicting interests when conflicting values are at stake? All the introductory tools we have given them that assume interests can be traded to produce resolution don’t apply in a values-based or identity-based context. PON currently has three values-based mediation exercises and is developing others.

Bruce Patton highlights the ongoing need for cases or games that respond to emerging topics of concern like social media and its impact on reputation. These are particularly relevant in the age of Facebook. He has suggested that PON seek more customer feedback regarding the themes and topics they would like to see covered in new Clearinghouse teaching materials.

Daniel Shapiro suggests that the Clearinghouse develop more inter-cultural cases. Though he has used Sally Soprano and other role play simulations in diverse contexts, and gotten a positive response, the next step might be to consider tailoring cases to other culturally-specific contexts. Robert Bordone suggests that the Clearinghouse needs to keep the classics up-to-date, by changing the dates and numbers to adjust for inflation so the games feel more relevant.

Top selling PON cases can be found here.

To discuss this article further please visit us at the NP@PON Discussion Forum.

Written by Carrie O’Neil, taken from the Summer 2011 issue of Teaching Negotiation, the biannual e-Newsletter for Negotiation Pedagogy at the Program on Negotiation (NP@PON), which can be found here.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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