Reflections on Business Consulting

In business as in life, I try to play for a win-win in all my negotiations. Instead of confrontational or competitive based posturing, it is usually possible to find a way to meet everyone's needs.

The best resource I can recommend for this approach is Fisher, Ury, & Patton's Getting to Yes. In that book, they approach the issue of position-based negotiations instead of the traditional give-and-take model--otherwise known as bartering.

Win-win scenarios take more emotional intelligence from all parties and usually a level of trust and dialog that isn't always common. The result however is the growth of a relationship that further builds on the foundation of trust and understanding between the parties.

What is required for a win-win success? I can think of five critical factors:

  1. Anticipate what a "win" means to your other partners. Both (or all) parties must have a sufficiently intimate understanding of each other's needs and position that they can reasonably anticipate what the other party will consider a success. This knowledge can be obtained from past history within the relationship, or in the case of a new relationship, a frank and open dialog of the needs that all parties feel towards the negotiation. Ideally, both history and new understandings are helpful. Attempting to play for a win-win when one or more parties is not forthcoming with their needs and strategic objectives will only breed mistrust, confusion, and likely a failure to meet all parties' goals.
  2. Understand your own definition of a win. The understanding by each party of what they need from the relationship. If you can't articulate your needs, then how can your business partners anticipate your needs? These needs should be clear and unequivocal.
  3. Articulate your needs as needs; your wants as wants. Share your needs without giving away any trade secrets. If you need a 10% ROI then say so; don't say you need a 15% ROI and then be prepared to negotiate away the extra 5% later--that is confusing to your partners when you do give in and it undermines the trust that will allow you to have a good relationship into the future. At the same time, if it turns out that there is more profit in the relationship than expected, the parties should have a formula to share any windfall in excess of their needs.
  4. When possible, negotiate with a corporate entity rather than an individual. It's easier to negotiate with a company or organization rather than an individual. Why is this? An organization, whether it be at a board or management level, or farther down with in the organization, has usually spent considerable time thinking and discussing its needs, its business model, the opportunity costs of the relationship and the benefits that can be derived from working together. In short, the process of being a corporation usually involves articulating goals and needs even if these discussions are kept internal to the organization. Individuals are often more conflicted in their motives and directions. They say they want something but personal habits, weaknesses, or conflicting opportunities or commitments are seldom examined and can often undermine the venture and the negotiations.
  5. Give existing and past partners a preference when choosing partners for a new or emerging opportunity. Once a win-win relationship has been successfully exploited a few times, it is often more efficient and productive to leverage this relationship for new ventures rather than looking to partner with new players. This is because a fair bit of energy is expended in the early stages of setting up any relationship before any productive results can come out of it. Of course, all parties need to keep their options open, but as a rule, going with the lowest bidder as the only requirement--especially if the new player is only a bit cheaper than established partnerships--is probably an example of being "penny wise yet pound foolish."