A Jedi mind trick for creating more value

The participants in the executive program returned to the seminar room after having carried out a negotiation simulation with each other. The key focus of the negotiation had been to maximise value and the group of international senior managers and executives had performed quite well.

In the following debrief we discussed how we could have created even more value, and the group collectively identified quite a few additional options. Well done!

But then I put a very simple question to the group: “We’ve now pushed the limit of what we can achieve in the negotiation, so let us try something else. What if I now asked you to forget about the negotiation altogether, and instead simply treat the case you were given as an exercise in how to maximise value for the two parties involved?”

I was temporarily blinded by all the metaphorical light bulbs that simultaneously switched on in the room 🙂 . Creating dramatically more value suddenly became very easy – even trivial.

So what changed? The task was still the same, but the participants’ frame of mind had changed. When asked to merely solve a well-defined problem (i.e. “What would it take to maximise value for both parties”) we do precisely that – solve the problem. We know how to solve problems and we do it well!

In contrast, when we believe our task is to negotiate, chances are – ironically – that our brains start to run destructive processes that severely limit our ability to influence others or create value. The vast majority of us have flawed beliefs of how influence works, so when we attempt to influence we actually – unintentionally but effectively – sabotage the process instead.

So what is the Jedi mind trick I’m referring to in the title? “We are presently not in a negotiation… We are presently not in a negotiation… It is just a problem to be solved… We are presently not in a neg…” In other words, with most people we want to avoid associating the word “negotiation” with our current interaction.

Interestingly, when we cross paths with the minority of people who subscribe to value creation, win/win and systems maximisation, we actually want to do the opposite and encourage them to make the most of using their skills for everyone’s benefit. So here the mind trick then changes to:We are presently in a negotiation… Every interaction is a negotiation… We are presently in a neg…”

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Do better than win/win

It is Tuesday morning, and I complement my negotiation coaching session with the soothing and tranquil soundtrack of a high-powered leaf blower in the background.

I peek outside the window, and see the building maintenance guy vigorously chasing an ever moving mountain of leaves. When I later leave (badum-tish!) for lunch I can’t help but notice how pristinely spotless the property looks. Well done Mr Leafblowerman! Certainly a win/win transaction, right?

Yes, but that’s not good enough. Let me explain.

On Wednesday mornings I again enjoy the soundtrack of a leaf blower, but the relaxing acoustics sound slightly different as they now originate from the building next door. I again glance out the window, and see Mrs Leafblowerwoman standing in a cloud of dust and leaves. She has managed to lift everything off the ground, and is now patiently waiting for it all to settle… on our side of the fence.

HEY WAIT A SECOND!! She is doing exactly what our guy is doing. And if we had a win/win negotiation with him, then surely our neighbours have win/win negotiating with her? But I’m certainly less excited about their deal – particularly as my car is now covered with dust and leaves. How could this possibly be a win/win?

Here’s what’s going on – we are using too simplified labels to describe negotiation. In our book we deal with this by describing four negotiation dynamics.

  • The first one is about dividing value, or transferring value (or problems!) from one party to another. This usually results in win/lose outcomes.
  • The second focuses on ensuring that value is increased for both parties. However, it is important to realise that sometimes this value is not created, but rather transferred from other parties who are not part of our negotiation! Thus a win/win deal between two parties may still be a win/lose deal between this group and other parties!

If value is merely transferred in the system, then value is not created, and therefore our actions are zero-sum – if someone wins, then someone, somewhere, loses.

We can contrast this with a sustainable approach to negotiation, which is focused on creating and maximising value in the system. In the book we refer to this as maximisation, and boy is it powerful. And it doesn’t have to be difficult. In our leaf blower example, if Mr and Mrs Leafblowerperson instead pick up the leaves and put them in the bin, then the leaves (i.e. the problem) would be removed from the system, as opposed to being perpetually passed around.