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Six questions you should always ask when negotiating

December 17th, 2015

Negotiation is viewed by many as a ‘Dark Art’. It is something that many approach with a sense of trepidation. The cynic in me often feels such perceptions are perpetuated to justify the five figure fees of many negotiation courses. This is because in my experience, comfort and success in negotiation can be greatly improved by answering some very simple and practical questions:

1. Is this the right time to negotiate?

Have you ever had the experience of someone phoning you, as you’re rushing to get ready for an important event, or as you’re trying to get food on the table for a hungry family? How receptive are you to the call? For most people, it’s ‘not very receptive at all’. In such circumstances, it is often best not to get involved in a conversation and instead reschedule for another time.

A negotiation is simply a specific type of conversation and so follows the same general rules as all conversations. If it starts well, it often finishes well. If it starts badly, it can be very difficult to ‘get it back’.

Consequently, it is worth asking yourself whether now is the right time for negotiating and explicitly asking the other party whether it’s the right time for them too.

2. Is this the right location to negotiate?

Many a fundraiser will tell you that asking for a donation is often easier when the would be recipients are physically in the background and visibly benefiting from the charity’s work. Far more practically, choosing a location where distractions are kept to a minimum can greatly increase negotiation success.

3. Is the person you’re negotiating with in a position to decide?

I have seen some outstanding examples of negotiation completely wasted because upon reaching a ‘deal’ one of the parties says; “I’m just going to have to OK this with my boss.”

When this happens the negotiation often has to start all over again with the boss and much of the time already committed is wasted. Consequently, it’s important to check that your counterpart can make a decision. If they can’t, it is perfectly reasonable to insist that the negotiation does not start until the decision maker is present.

4. Are you the right person to be negotiating for your organisation?

In an ideal world, issues such as your age, gender, nationality and status would have no bearing on your perceived capability to negotiate. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and the preconceived ideas held by your counterpart may mean that someone else in your organisation will get a better deal than you.

5. Is it worth negotiating?

It may be that your counterpart’s preconceptions/discriminatory views are sufficiently contra to your and/or your organisation’s values that continuing negotiation becomes untenable. Even, when such preconceptions do not exist, it is still worth asking yourself whether negotiating is worth the effort. Essentially, you should consider negotiating when doing so can potentially provide you and your negotiating partner with something better than a non-negotiated outcome. However sometimes the alternatives to negotiating are preferential. In such circumstances saying ‘No’ to negotiation is the right answer.

6. Have you devoted sufficient time to your BATNA?

The styles, processes and skills for negotiation are best developed through training and practice rather than through a blog post. However, a stand-out requirement for any negotiation is a good BATNA: Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.

Taking the time and effort to develop a strong BATNA is crucial to successful negotiation. Psychologically it can have a profound effect, as a strong BATNA allows you to approach a negotiation knowing that, even if it fails, the alternative is still OK.

To quote the late publisher Felix Denis (a renowned negotiator);

“You have to persuade yourself that you absolutely don’t care what happens. I absolutely promise you, in every serious negotiation, the man or woman who doesn’t care is going to win.”

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10 Reflections on mch’s 10th Anniversary

July 3rd, 2015

In May of this year, mch: positive impact celebrated its 10th anniversary. Here are some reflections from the last 10 years, which I hope prove useful in your work:

1. Little Things Count

This box of staples was part of mch’s first stationary order back in 2005. I remember looking at it and thinking;

‘Will this box of staples last longer than the company?’

Over the following 10 years, I have been reminded of this question every time I refill my stapler and at various times it has triggered strong feelings of optimism, contentment and resolve.

Little things count. They count in so many ways. I have received very public displays of gratitude, but a very simple and heart felt; ‘Thank you’ from an individual often stays with me longer. In client feedback, it is the little things that are often cited: providing an additional idea or an unexpected resource.

Incidentally, from the original 5,000 staples there are now a little over a 100 left, so the company is set to outlast the original order!

2. Big Things Count Too. The Benefits of Perspective

When founding an organisation, there’s a risk of associating yourself too closely with your ‘creation’. Fortunately, a drive down the Monash Freeway in Melbourne prepared me for such a scenario.

The drive occurred when I was working at the management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company, several years before founding mch. I was working with one other person who was considerably older and more experienced than me. The work required driving to different locations around Melbourne and as we’d established a good rapport, our conversations broadened beyond just the task at hand. It was during such a conversation that I remember receiving the following advice;

“Never associate yourself too closely with any particular work; as one way or another it will come to an end…and when it does you need to be able to answer the question, ‘What am I now?’”

My colleague took his own advice very much to heart, answering the common dinner party question; ‘So what do you do?’ along the lines of; “I’m a husband and a father. I love watching football and travelling to remote wineries……”

Such advice has stayed with me and despite the investment required in starting, developing and maintaining a business, I have always tried to invest more in the things that really matter: relationships, my health, my community. Indeed such advice is largely responsible for why I work a four day week.

3. Prepare for the Worst

Back in 2005, while considering whether to start mch, I was still strongly influenced by the management and leadership training I received while at McKinsey & Company. McKinsey prides itself on its analysis, and while at the firm I developed countless scenario plans for clients detailing the worst case, likely case and best case associated with a potential decision they were considering.

Consequently, I conducted a scenario plan for mch. With a growing set of responsibilities (mortgage payments etc) I paid particular attention to the worst case scenario. Such analysis ‘stress tested’ my enthusiasm for starting the company. It also gave me resolve, as the analysis suggested I could withstand a terrible/worst case scenario year. This is just as well, as I have had a terrible year (largely due to the global financial crisis). One silver lining was that my income during the terrible year was very close to my prediction, which at least showed my analytical skills were up to scratch!

4. Enjoy the Lulls

Being busy is sometimes very difficult to avoid: I have very little control over when a client needs my training and mentoring services. Once the busyness stops, there can be an inclination to try and remain busy: a prevailing view across many spheres of work is that ‘busy is good’. Being ‘manically busy’ seems to be a badge of honour in many workplaces.

I have tried a counter approach, by embracing and enjoying lulls in work. This often requires conscious effort. For example, during the ‘terrible year’ I mentioned above, one of the best things I did was to take a full month off work. I took the view that rather than busying myself looking for work that wasn’t there, it was best to go on holiday. Now there were moments on holiday when I did worry, but in the main I returned to work refreshed and ready to tackle what remained a difficult environment.

5. Intuition is Underrated

I am very lucky in that I choose who I work with. As a result, I’ve genuinely enjoyed the vast, vast majority of my client engagements. However, there have been two or three that have not been enjoyable. On reflection, a common feature of these engagements was that although I could rationalise why they were worthwhile, they just did not feel right.

Following intuition requires faith and courage, as it entails ‘knowing without knowing why’. This can appear a flimsy basis upon which to make a decision, but I have found it to be just as accurate as the more rationale methods of decision making. I believe I am in good company on this reflection, as to quote Albert Einstein;

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

6. Quality is Favourable to Quantity

Despite the ‘terrible year’ outlined above, I’ve had more good years than bad ones. So much so, that there were times when expanding mch was considered. To this end, recruitment, rather than partnership arrangements, was considered the only guarantee that quality and the mch way of doing things would be preserved. Unfortunately, the chances of finding a suitably qualified individual, who was prepared to work for considerably less than they could earn elsewhere, made successful recruitment so unlikely that it was not attempted.

Consequently, mch is an organisation where small and simple takes priority over growth and profit.

7. Regardless of Size and Sector, there are Universal Aspects of Good Practice

While mch may not follow the perceived wisdom of continually seeking growth and economies of scale, some of our working practices are akin to those adopted my large multinationals. For example, mch produces an annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. CSR involves operating in a manner that meets the expectations society has of business. Within the context of CSR, I monitor our client, supplier, employee, community and environmental impact. Despite only having a single full time employee, mch also devotes considerable time to strategic planning. I consider such practices to be a key contributor to the company’s sustainability.

8. Balance is Key

I am a great believer in plans. I also believe that significant parts of work (and life in general) are so complicated that detailed plans are futile and it is impossible to know if outcomes were actually determined by decisions. Consequently, I find it’s best when plans are balanced with reflecting on experience and iterated through experimentation. I also think iterating plans should be balanced with holding on to high level objectives and values.

Interestingly, upon reviewing the previous seven reflections, I see balance is a central theme to many of them.

9. Practicality and Individuality Trumps Arbitrary Norms

As my business has developed, I’ve continually seen the importance of tuning into practical and individual circumstances.

“I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew, their names are ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘When’ and ‘How’ and ‘Where’ and ‘Who’”.

This is an extract from a Rudyard Kipling poem. Consistently, I find this quote more effective for considering strategy/making plans than complex frameworks from management journals, business schools or top-tier consultancy firms. On numerous occasions, time, money and other resources have been saved by focussing on these ‘W’ questions e.g. By exploring ‘When’ a client has realised that while laudable, now just isn’t the right time to embark upon a training programme. Such practical issues are often more insightful than standard approaches to strategic planning.

Tuning into the individual can also challenge arbitrary norms. Take for example a mentoring session. How long should a session last? Many mentors (and indeed practitioners in a variety of fields) stipulate a specific time e.g. 45 minutes, or an hour. In my experience though, such an arbitrary figure does not always fit with how long a mentee needs; which is why mch does not set such a time. Of course there does need to be certain limits, and some mentees respond well to a focused period of time….here comes that word balance again…but starting without a prescribed time limit can offer the freedom to think freely and deeply.

10. There is no 10th reflection!

In keeping with reflection number nine, why should there be 10 reflections just because it arbitrarily fits with mch’s 10th anniversary? Hopefully you’ve found nine to be enough!

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Do you have the happiness advantage?

September 4th, 2012

A common held view is that happiness follows on from success – achieve a goal and you will become happy. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests the opposite is true: those with a positive mind-set are more likely to perform better in the face of a challenge. Furthermore, while our genetic make-up and our environment undoubtedly contribute to how happy we are, the research suggests well-being is surprising malleable – simple practices, consistently applied can have a dramatic impact.

Click here for a full overview of the research and the simple practices that can improve well-being.

Research such as this has led to the term ‘positive intelligence’ becoming more and more common. For those that would like to find out more about this area, Shirzad Chamine’s book, ‘Positive Intelligence’ is a good place to start. Shirzad’s website also offers two free (and short) assessments which may give you an indication as to your current state of well-being.

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