Sunday, 18 April 2010 00:00

Monty Python's Guide to Negotiation

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Negotiation is at the heart of every recovery. Once the problems are determined, you must get everyone to concur on the solution. Achieving agreement, however, is inextricably bound to culture—from Asia's polite bows and constant "yeses," to the fist pounding demands of the Middle East. The distinction hit me in back-to-back projects. Culture shock abound. Little did I know, I would find solace and guidance in a favorite Monty Python flick.

Honest Broker

The first three steps of any project recovery are audit, analysis, and negotiation. They rely on an honest and unbiased assessment of the issues as the basis for a plan to balance the needs of the customer and the supplier while meeting the constraints of the recovery guidelines. In the land of saving face, this is valued. It is a little more difficult in a culture that is in your face.

The turning point came when questioning a database design. I felt that having a single column with multiple meanings was a design worth the effort of challenging. I called a meeting with the customer to discuss their design. I was new to the project and had been on site for about a month, was tired and looking forward to my return trip home, which would start that evening.

I explained the problem and proposed the solution of inserting a new column to handle the second context. I expected that there would be some alterations since my database-design days are in the past. As long as there was integrity in the final concept, I was fine.

I fully understand that at times mutually agreed upon solutions cannot be found. Maybe there is a need to agree to disagree and for superiors to manage by edict. At others times differences cannot be resolved and it is time to part ways. I was improperly prepared for what would transpire.

The customer's DBA became incensed that anyone would question the design. I decided to take a tack that had worked numerous times before. I would accept the design, however, the meeting minutes and a subsequent change request would reflect that the customer would hold the liability for problems stemming from confusion on the data's meaning. The customer would either see the danger or agree to the change order and the meeting would be done. The customer's project manager insisted on continuing. I, being tired, simply wanted the yelling to stop. They continued arguing in Hebrew.

I sat patiently waiting to be excused. Other than the fact it was obviously a violent disagreement, I had no idea what was being discussed. Abruptly the project manager looked at me and said, "You are right, we will do it your way." I sat stunned silence. I had hardly spoken a word. I simply watched the volley of raised voices for nearly twenty minutes. They pointed at my drawing, adding circles and arrows with no indication of their intention. Then suddenly they acquiesced.

A negotiation and ensuing discussion is a process of defining a problem and a solution and then tuning it to achieve the best results. Start at a fair and honest point for a solution. It should be unemotional. I left the meeting in disbelief, wandered to my office, recorded the minutes, distributing them to the effected people around the world. I omitted the discussion, for lack of linguistic capabilities, and the editorial of what had transpired. I was astonished by my success, since I had done nothing. I turned my attention to the thirty-six hours of travel required to rejoin my family.

The John Cleese School of Negotiation

Later, sitting a half a world away, kids by my side, we scanned the shelves for something funny to watch. The Life of Brain seemed to leap off the rack. It met the condition for comedy and would continue the tone of the tales for my trip. I gazed in amazement at the satirical mastery of the boys of the Flying Circus for capturing the intricacies of the culture that I had left a few dozen hours ago. When we reached the scene of Brian buying a beard (embedded for your viewing pleasure) I was aghast. Brian was getting the education I had missed. I was not haggling. I could do this in markets, but it had never occurred to use it at work. I needed to dicker, concede something, and meet in the middle—at work as well as in the market. It was more than a tool; it was the culture.

Negotiation: The Art and Science of Getting What You Want (Class)

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His Saga Continues

Just this last week, Mr. Cleese has once again plied his prowess in negotiation. In his own words, stranded in Oslo due to their attempts to trap him "by paying the Icelanders to burn parts of their country in order to spread a cloud of airborne debris across Europe," he negotiated a taxi to take him from Oslo to Brussels for a meager 5,000 USD (3,700 EUR). That might seem like a hefty sum. In Chicago you would pay a paltry 3,600 USD for 930 miles, in London a moderate 4,800 USD. So why do I think he did so good? According to the Cleeseblog he rode in style: "To keep us entertained, we took with us a a[sic] jazz quartet, and together we travelled in a vintage 1961 Bedford Coach which included a sauna and sushi bar." Notwithstanding a little Cleese improvisation to make a good story, that is a heck of a bargain.

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