Win-Win Negotiation Techniques: Create Value with Rivals

Win-win negotiation techniques can transform competitors into collaborators—and create value for society, an unexpected new partnership between rival astronomy projects suggests.

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Even experienced negotiators often make the mistake of treating important talks as a win-lose negotiation. Overlooking effective win-win negotiation techniques, they focus on trying to claim as much value as they can without trying to create new sources of value.

It’s also the case that competitors in a given market or field may fail to recognize how teaming up can create mutual gain. A recent news story about how two giant telescope projects recognized they’d gain strength by teaming up serves as a compelling win-win strategy example.


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Caught in the Crosshairs

Back in 2002, the leadership of the California Institute of Technology and the University of California system conceived of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a mammoth $1.4 billion, 18-story facility to be built on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano rising two miles above the Pacific Ocean on the island of Hawaii. The joint venture among scientists in the United States, Canada, India, and Japan promised new views of the universe and would be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere.

Meanwhile, over in Pasadena, the Carnegie Observatories embarked on plans for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), a facility to be built in Chile for approximately $1 billion. Expected to be the largest optical observatory in the Southern Hemisphere and perhaps the world, the GMT attracted partners in Australia, Brazil, Chile, and South Korea.

But while a third giant telescope project, the Chile-based European Extremely Large Telescope, led by a 15-nation European consortium, zoomed ahead, progress on the TMT and GMT stalled. With the telescopes positioned as rivals, funding nations and institutions lined up behind one or the other rather than both, leaving both short of their funding goals, as reported by Science magazine. And while the GMT is under construction, the TMT faced costly delays as a result of protests and legal challenges from Hawaiians who objected to telescopes being built on Mauna Kea, an ancient burial site. The TMT team began to consider giving up and moving the project to Spain’s Canary Islands.

An Expanded Scope

On May 21, 2018, the leaders behind the two projects announced an agreement to do what they might have done from the start: join forces. Given their main goal of winning funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Congress, they modified their projects to make them more inclusive. Specifically, they agreed to give astronomers from any institution worldwide access to the telescopes and also to devote a portion of viewing time to the public.

The “division” between the TMT and GMT “has set back U.S. astronomy a decade,” University College London astronomer Richard Ellis, a former leader of the TMT, told Science. “Let’s turn the corner.”

The win-win negotiation and resulting agreement came as the U.S. government was about to embark on a once-per-decade survey to determine funding for astronomy projects. The newly united TMT/GMT teams will highlight their “complementary strengths,” according to Science. When combined, they will be able to capture both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Moreover, the GMT is designed to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets, while the TMT will seek new information on the universe’s first galaxies.

They had reason to be optimistic: In May, Representative John Culberson, who chairs the House appropriations subpanel that funds scientific projects, allocated $123 million to yet another mega-telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, despite the fact that the project’s leaders and the NSF had requested only $49 million. Culberson told Science he believes in “front-loading” funding of large engineering projects to lock in costs and speed up construction.

Win-Win Negotiation Techniques in Action

When organizations frame themselves as competitors, they can become so focused on “beating” their rival that it becomes almost impossible for them to see the virtues of teaming up in the pursuit of shared goals. The collaboration between the TMT and GMT reminds us that among the various types of negotiation skills available to us, simply seeing the possibilities of teaming up with rivals can be invaluable. In particular, when roadblocks are in your way, or you seem to have little power, partnerships and other forms of coalition building may change the situation to your advantage.

A word of caution, however: when partnerships between rivals harm outsiders rather than help them, negotiators may be accused of collusion. Team up with rivals for a win-win negotiation only when you expect to create net value for society, and be upfront and open about your partnership.

What other win-win negotiation techniques have you found to be effective?

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