Project Negotiations and the Iron Triangle

Negotiation skills are useful in life and essential for professional success. This week, Payson Hall provides a short tutorial on project negotiations that includes a technique to help you look for solutions. The use of motivation and the "Iron Triangle" is a good starting point.

Negotiation is a process of interaction among parties who have differing, conflicting, or competing goals but want to seek a solution agreeable to all. Because real-world problem solving often involves seeking trade-offs and reconciliation among competing interests, negotiation is a critical problem-solving skill.

To start, I would like to offer two suggestions that you can use to help facilitate your next negotiation: 

  1. Explore what is motivating others (context) before you react to their request or proposal.
  2. Use the "Iron Triangle" of project management as a problem solving aid.

Humans engage in primitive negotiation from the moment they can communicate. A crying baby "negotiates" with its parents for food, a clean diaper, or attention. Siblings negotiate with one another when they trade Halloween candy, trying to maximize the number and variety of their favorite tasty treats. Married couples negotiate how household chores will be allocated between them. Yet people often fail to develop their negotiating skills beyond a basic level. Primitive negotiators think of negotiation in terms of win and lose, of dominance and surrender. This primitive view can make negotiating an emotionally charged process often avoided when possible.

To constructively engage in negotiation, it is helpful to think of it as a collaborative process. The goal isn't "winning" but to find an agreeable solution that accommodates everyone's needs. From a project perspective, this quest can be partitioned into two parts: understanding the contexts of the negotiating parties and searching the solution space for agreeable alternatives.

What They Want
To negotiate effectively, you must understand who wants what and why they want it. In my experience, people often focus on the demands or requests of other parties without understanding their motivation. If you find yourself guessing why someone wants what he wants, you have probably gotten ahead of yourself. If you find yourself arguing that a request is unreasonable before you know why it was made, you may end up embarrassing yourself.

To explain this point, negotiators tell the story of two children arguing over which should have the last four lemons in the house, each insisting that they need all four for their purposes. The first solution that comes to many people is that each child should get two lemons, which seems fair though it disappoints everyone involved. Exploring the situation further might determine that one child wants the lemons for juice to make lemonade, while the other child wants the rind for a baking recipe. It might be possible to completely satisfy both parties once you understand the context of their requests.

Establishing a context for project requests is important as well. Imagine one of your sponsoring executives is away at a trade conference and calls to ask whether you can accelerate your project ship date from October 1 to September 1. Before you begin arguing that the schedule is already tight, it will serve you to ask what he or she had in mind. Some possible motivations:

  • The executive just had coffee with a potential new client who would buy a jillion copies of your product if it were available by September 1.
  • The executive just overheard a competitor discussing the September availability date of a comparable product.
  • The executive just found out that venture capitalists expressed concerns about your company's ability to deliver. The next meeting with the Venture Capital firm is September 15.
  • The executive was intrigued by a trade show booth presentation he just saw and was imagining your product being similarly demonstrated at a trade show scheduled for mid-September.
  • The executive was updating his "accomplishments for the second quarter" slide for the big boss

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