Inventing Options for Mutual Gain


    Conversation is not just our ability to verbalize information, it’s also our ability to process information, of becoming aware of what we know, the internal dialogue we have with ourselves and our mind, the interaction between what we think and what we say, but also between what we say and what we do.

    Many of the most productive conversations we have lead to an understanding of sorts. In some cases they allow us to connect with one another in a way that leads to solving a problem, advancing a project, and creating opportunity for a next step or action. 

    This kind of conversation is similar to a negotiation where both or multiple parties participate. But rather than thinking about it as an opportunity to expand our options, when we think about negotiating we take a binary approach—which implies there are only two options.

    A good reason to learn why we should never bargain over positions in negotiation is that it makes it a binary win/lose situation. But we live in a world where it pays off to be deliberate about how we decide whether to cooperate or compete.

    In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving in Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Process say that behaviors like searching for a single answer, assuming there is a fixed pie, and thinking that “solving their problem is their problem,” are problematic. They make us short-sighted and rigid, not to mention unimaginative, in an environment where, save highly bureaucratic lock-ins, things can and do change quickly.

    Developing options is a more mature approach. It leverages our ability to prepare for and respond to situations, rather than reacting, and helps make the opportunity a win/win. Because we never do know when we'll meet the other party again, and in what circumstances.

    Ury and Fisher provide a prescription for inventing creative options. They say we need to:

  1. separate the act of inventing options from the act of judging them
  2. broaden the options on the table rather than look for a single answer
  3. search for mutual gains
  4. invent ways for making the decision easy

    Before we go ahead and jump through the brainstorming rabbit hole we should do a few things really well to set ourselves up for success. Since the situation—a negotiation—involves both what is on offer and what needs to be done in response, we should treat it as a strategic conversation.

    This means we should:

  • define purpose—participants should have a clear understanding of the purpose for the session or sessions should be with emphasis on what we want to have in hand by the end of the meeting
  • engage multiple perspectives—given that the scope is to broaden options, we should resist the temptation of inviting only the people who think like us; instead, we should consider having the right mix based on experience, expertise, but also strong idea generators. For this application, limit to 5-8 people
  • frame the issues—it's useful for the facilitator to provide a high level map to orient the group on what is going on and help people navigate options based on future possibilities and key trade-offs or choice points
  • set the scene—this may be obvious to some, but we should arrange the environment with different kinds of tools like flip chart, a blackboard, and markers, or have big pads on hand and the fewer distractions possible; even better when the setting is not the office but a more creative space
  • make it an experience—this could be fun! Say the topic is the humane treatment of animals, how about doing the session at the local zoo? We should think of something that engages both emotional and analytical thinking

    During the actual session, we can arrange for the conversation to keep flowing as people remain open to listening and participating by:

  • asking people to sit next to each other in a semi circle, for example, so everyone is facing the issue—physical proximity engages collaboration, facing the problem reinforces the mental attitude we're in it together 
  • clarifying the ground rules, including the “no-criticism rule”—when people new to each other are present, it's a good idea to start with introductions; negative talk is off limits; and we're off the record. Idea generation works out best when we have the freedom to move beyond the obvious (especially since all the obvious ideas are usually taken)
  • making space for imagination, because it's hard work—as anyone who's ever tried to come up with the best possible future will attest, most of us have at best a vague idea of what we want. This is ironically why we choose the easy way out in negotiation by talking ourselves out of coming up with multiple options and instead hold “because I say so” positions
  • recording ideas so everyone can see them—it's a good idea to take notes s well, but writing out or drawing the key points in a place where everyone can see them helps get on the same page faster, and gain a visible sense of progress. It also reduces repetition, and stimulates second level ideas

    When the imagining is done, we can then do the work to prioritize, consolidate, expand the top ideas, and reconvene to evaluate and decide. It's important to approach inventing options as a process rather than an event.

    We shouldn't try to make a decision until we are happy with the choice we identified and have had the opportunity to shape them before the actual negotiation takes place.

    Ury and Fisher suggest we should also consider brainstorming with the other side.

    With the caveat that we'll need to work on segregating confidential information, and communicating with our team or group about what we can say and not say, and redouble our efforts to create a productive and open session with the purpose to expand options first.

    Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a draft creative concept or placeholder copy knows that it's really hard to hold ourselves in an open mind space once we think we saw something or heard something we like. We should be clear about the purpose of the idea session being to invent options rather than reaching agreement. Say Fisher and Ury:

To reduce the risk of appearing committed to any given idea, you can make a habit of advancing at least two alternatives at the same time. You can also put on the table options with which you obviously disagree.

For example, “I could give you the house for nothing, or you could pay me a million dollars in cash for it, or…”

Since you are plainly not proposing either of these ideas, the ones which follow are labeled as mere possibilities, not proposals.

    We're so used to having to make decisions on the fly and with imperfect information that it's tempting to assume we're looking to find the best answer, or narrow down, rather than making the negotiating room bigger.

The Circle Chart

    The Circle Chart Fisher and Ury developed helps us multiply options by moving between specific and general, helping us use four types of thinking:

  1. thinking about a particular problem—the factual situation we dislike
  2. thinking about a descriptive analysis—we diagnose an existing situation in general terms
  3. thinking about what ought to be done—still in general terms
  4. thinking about specific and feasible suggestions for action—who might do what tomorrow to put one of the general approached into practice?

    Another method to generate multiple options is to look through the eyes of different experts. We could also invent agreements of different strengths. For example, we may not agree on substance, but be on the same page on procedure, or rather than making a permanent change, it could be provisional, we could play with binding and non-binding.

    We can change the scope of an agreement, narrowing it or splitting it into parts.

    The point of inventing options is to look for mutual gain. Which brings us back to looking for shared interests even when it's less obvious, for example in matters of pricing. With shared interests it's useful to remember that they're latent in every negotiation, and not immediately obvious. For example, do we both care about maintaining a good relationship? What are the costs for both parties if we can't reach an agreement?

    Shared interests are also opportunities, say Ury and Fisher. For us to unlock them, we need to still make them explicit, for example as a shared goal.  Concrete and future-oriented opportunities are more appealing.

    Putting thought into highlighting shared interests makes negotiations smoother and more amicable. Disagreement is often the basis for agreement—what makes a deal go through is a difference in beliefs. The kind of differences that best lend themselves to dovetailing are “differences in interests, in beliefs, in the value placed on time, in forecasts, and in aversion to risk.”

    We should remember to help make the decision easy for the other party. The success of our negotiation depends on it.