The Flinch and Other Traps

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Everything that IT leaders do involves a negotiation in one way or another. Yet, focusing on negotiation skills is one of the last things we do when thinking about the professional development needs of our organizations.

Once, while thumbing through a magazine on a cross-country flight, I noticed an advertisement featuring a very distinguished-looking gentleman named Chester Karrass, whose testimonial stated, “In business as in life, you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.” Seeing this ad several times before, I decided “why not” and signed up for a Karrass negotiating seminar. While the content of the workshop was predominantly focused on buying and selling, what stuck with me was how applicable it was to the negotiations regarding the expectations and resources that IT leaders face every day.

This semester, one of my reading clubs – a group of mid-career IT professionals at the University of Georgia – is reading Karrass’s In Business as in Life, You Don’t Get What You Deserve; You Get What You Negotiate. But our group is less focused on buying and selling than on applying Karrass’s principles of negotiation to day-to-day discussions regarding expectations and resources between IT organizations and those they serve. All too often, the root cause of major IT failures has less to do with technical competence and is more likely to be rooted in a mismatch between user expectations and available resources – often the result of a negotiation that didn’t turn out well for the IT organization. Faring well in negotiations is key to avoiding a self-reinforcing cycle of over-commitment and underperformance, which destroys IT leadership credibility and leads to a downward spiral of deteriorating IT service performance.

Karrass’s point is that there are time-tested strategies for better outcomes in any negotiation, and his book’s Chapter 11 highlights two of the more common demand-and-offer tactics that often cause IT leaders to overcommit their organizations.

  • The Flinch – involves the use of body language such as arm gestures, shoulder shrugs, or other hand movements when expressing concern over an offer. Perhaps building, testing, and putting a new IT feature into place would ideally take a month, given other commitments. In response to that offer by the IT leadership, there comes significant concern or even disbelief that something so simple could possibly take so long, and that such a delay would negatively impact a business operation. A flinch, in this case, puts the IT leadership on the defensive, as they feel that they must relieve the obvious concern by defending why their offer is reasonable. When pressed in this way, the IT leader will often overcommit in order to save face, given the obvious expression of concern.
  • The Planning Purpose Trap – involves a request from someone for a rough estimate of time or cost to accomplish some IT-related objective. The person asks for a “rough ballpark estimate” for planning purposes should an initiative be requested later. Wanting to be helpful, the IT leadership makes some quick assumptions about what this initiative is, how it will impact current operations, how much time is required for completion, and how it fits in with other commitments – assumptions that many times prove to be way off. Only later, when the client makes the full request, do IT leaders dig into the actual requirements and discover that their original estimate was way too low – hence the trap. When pressed in this way, the IT leader will again overcommit in order to regain credibility lost when the original estimate was way off.

Ultimately, all conversations around expectations and resources are negotiations, but that does not mean that the individuals we work with are competitors or adversaries; they most certainly are not. All of us – those in IT and in the broader university community – are feeling the pressures of growing demands on higher education at a time when there are fewer and fewer resources. Stronger collaborations – looking for win-win solutions for both IT and those who depend on IT – is key to mutual long-term success.

For IT leaders, when negotiating with others regarding services you deliver, here’s how to keep the negotiation on a path to a win-win outcome.

  • Focus on understanding and meeting needs and not wants.
  • When listening, try listening to understand and not to respond.

When looking for win-win negotiations, there’s no better solution than to proceed with an eye toward understanding the true needs of those you work with – and the best way to accomplish that is through asking good questions and listening. Other tips for win-win negotiations include: understanding IT’s present constraints; knowing the difference between IT’s true needs and wants; investing in preparation by writing down questions or ideas that may lead to win-win outcomes; and bringing others to the discussion who can help you listen and understand better.

IT success – the kind that we all desire for our institutions – flows from the alignment of expectations and resources. The more that IT leaders understand that managing expectations requires negotiation – albeit sometimes difficult ones – the better their organizations will perform when it comes to meeting expectations and delivering value that goes above and beyond those expectations.