Negotiating well in groups

The entire company, probably little over 50 people, was in the room. It was the 9th of December 2005 and we’d gathered to discuss the news that we were seriously considering an offer to sell the company. Nearly twenty people in the room had been with us more than five years – through two major pay cuts and one minor layoff – another 20 with us over the last two years, when it was certain we were no longer going to die. So the topic of the meeting and its consequences were not merely financial or professional but deeply emotional. If we chose to be acquired, our success largely lay in the hands of the folks in that room, in their willing participation and agreement to the decision to sell. Early in the meeting, we posed the question what would be your biggest fear or concern, should we sell the company.

As you can easily imagine when you pose such a question, to a large group of people, none of whom were at a startup because they were shy or retiring, things could easily degenerate into a free-for-all. Also while we had planned to take half a day for the meeting, there was a lot of ground to cover. So the challenge we were posed with was, how do we get the team to not only have their say, but to get them to converge on a few important things, such that the biggest concerns not only get aired, but acknowledged and ideally even addressed in the meeting.

Amazingly the 50+ people were able to converge on their three primary concerns and were unanimous with their first concern – “What would happen to our culture, if we are acquired?” thanks to a technique called Nominal Group Technique. And were able to do it within 15 minutes. This is a technique that I’ve had the opportunity to use repeatedly in groups, as small as 8 people to as big as 55, – to get rapid convergence – often from a standing start – of even what the key problems were that we needed to solve and what are the top 3 or 5 things to do to solve them. The technique requires that I write a whole another blog post dedicated to it to explain the manner in which we’ve used it, adapting it for different groups not just across countries but across age groups, and different socio-economic backgrounds. This morning I read about the a technique called Indaba, that was used at the recent climate conference (COP21) to get nearly 200 nations to sign-off to a binding agreement.

Negotiations are difficult by nature. Managing negotiations between 195 countries in order to arrive at a legally binding agreement, on the other hand, is nearly impossible. This was the problem that United Nations officials faced over two weeks at this month’s climate-change summit in Paris. To solve it, they brought in a unique management strategy.

The trick to getting through an over-complicated negotiation comes from the Zulu and Xhosa people of southern Africa. It’s called an “indaba” (pronounced IN-DAR-BAH), and is used to simplify discussions between many parties. Read the full article here.

If you reckoned negotiating with one party was hard, be it with an employee wanting to leave or customer or partner wanting more for less, negotiating with more than one party is incredibly more complicated. Luckily there are proven techniques that can help you do so successfully. It would be good to get acquainted with them, well before you’ll actually need to use them. Better yet, try ’em out today!

I’ve written about negotiating before here and conflict resolution here.

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