Recently I met up with an old colleague who was enjoying a retirement filled with golf, and he lamented that he just didn’t seem to get any better at it no matter how much he practised. With apologies to golfer’s everywhere, I of course thought about how the game of golf might serve as a metaphor for negotiations... I must acknowledge that I can’t play to save myself and base the golf in this blog entirely on coverage overheard during the sports news. It took me a while to get the ideas straight, probably because I’m so poor at the game of golf, but in the end, I think I found a useful analogy. Fitting the entire game of golf into the negotiation process was too tough, but I’d also been thinking a lot lately about the importance of seeing negotiations in the context of the entire procurement process and that worked nicely.
Most procurement processes start with needs, which are distilled into requirements of varying complexity and completeness as a necessary prelude to a procurement activity. A market survey, organisational policy or prior knowledge informs a decision on the form of the solicitation and the type of contract to be offered. Response(s) are evaluated and issues like the degree of compliance, risks and the cost typically become a basis of selection if multiple responses are entertained. If the procurement process is a long par 5, then perhaps these early steps correspond to deciding what club to hit off the tee? Just as a bad decision (drive) off the tee will put you in the rough or even the trees, formulating incomplete, unrealistic or contradictory requirements will tend to make it hard to negotiate and then deliver a successful agreement. Misunderstanding your market, just like hitting a bad second shot, can have grave consequences for your procurement. Overestimating the degree to which competition through tenders can provide a compliant solution within your budget is probably a bit like selecting the wrong club and dropping it into the water hazard - perhaps not entirely fatal to your round but will cost you a shot or two. Ultimately you may have to revise your requirements and reapproach the market. All very embarrassing in front of competitors and suppliers (your playing partners?).
Assuming we eventually make some progress down the procurement fairway, these issues we discerned in our earlier evaluation of responses received typically become the basis of the negotiable points between the parties. So, negotiation becomes like your approach shots to the green followed by chipping & putting, the infamous “make or break” short game... As in golf, the approach to negotiations favours the prepared player, with a realistic understanding of how far they can hit the ball with each club and a good eye to avoid hazards on their way to the hole. Failing to prepare effectively in detail or simply focussing on your own needs are common mistakes in the process of preparing for negotiations. Being flexible on club selection depending on where the approach shot has delivered you is key to getting on the green, just as is having a clear plan for negotiation conduct. Do you know how big a team to take into the negotiation and how to break the complex task of negotiation into well understood and complementary roles for the team-members? Will you reflect thoughtfully on the progress you are making and watch closely for signals?
Pitching onto the green is probably a bit like opening the negotiations. You want to have surveyed the green carefully and know where the ball will likely roll. Where are the bunkers on this hole? Are they a bit like the ‘must have’ issues for your counterparts, easily read by an experienced player but a nasty surprise for the inexperienced golfer who hasn’t brought a sand wedge yet? A good negotiation opening is approached confidently, with lots of preparation and establishes a realistic if possibly somewhat optimistic basis upon which to make a deal. The experienced golfer is watching intently to see how the greens play, to see if there is dew or wind from an unusual direction. Similarly, the seasoned negotiator watches their counterparts closely and understands the importance of signals. Something that can’t be accepted ‘right now’ may be able to be achieved if a later date is acceptable, if only we had noticed the signal and thought to ask ‘under what circumstances’ could it be acceptable?
Offers might be a bit like putting, hopefully moving us closer to the hole and always providing an insight into how the green is playing. A well-crafted offer helps gauge the degree of agreement between the parties and will likely help elicit useful information from the counterpart on residual issues. Just as a speculative putt from long range might sink, an offer can also serve as a trial closure of the negotiations. More commonly, a firm but measured first putt (realistic offer) ensures we don’t overshoot the hole and wind up back in the bunker.
At some point, when the ball has finally disappeared underground and the hole is completed (deal signed?), we get the chance to reflect on our performance & choices. As complex activities with multiple phases and multiple hazards, golf and procurement/negotiations favour those who are persistent, who are realistic in their approach and constructively self-critical about their performance. Learning lessons, from the golf pro (or your Scotwork negotiation adviser), pays off handsomely if you take on those lessons and practice diligently.
As always, happy negotiating and hopefully for any real golfers the analogy hasn’t been too tortuous, and you can concentrate on your golf game next time you are on a course and not think about negotiations!