The old saying is true: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
A negotiating agenda is your plan for success. The first commandment of negotiation is “never think and speak at the same time”. Your agenda is the advanced planning that will prepare you for any contingency once you are at the negotiating table. It is made up of 3 components:
- Deal points / Variables
This is your ASK. What do you want the other side to deliver. Choosing the right deal points or variables is the key to successful negotiation. The reason you are at the negotiating table is because you need something from the other side. You need to set your deal points so that he delivers what you need – not what he wants to give.
Your ASK – not your WANT. It is your job as a negotiator to frame the conversation around your definition of success. Don’t let the other side decide on the deal points – this is a major source of competition in a negotiation.
SMART is better than clever. Make sure your negotiating variables are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timed. Once you put your deal points on the table, they should be clear and verifiable to everyone involved.
Set your benchmarks. The less ambiguity and “wiggle room” in a negotiation, the more certain the outcome. Plenty of professional negotiators have shaken hands and walked away with a signed agreement – just to find out that there is no real meeting of the minds about the issues being negotiated. Use objective, external, verifiable benchmarks that are relevant to your deal. If you are discussing costs of plastic parts, you may use the price of petroleum as a benchmark.
Deal points are your WHAT and WHY. Process is the HOW, WHERE, WHEN, and HOW. Process describes how you are going to negotiate. Is the negotiation formal or informal? Face-to-face or distance? Your office, his, or a neutral location? Are you negotiating towards a binding contract or is this an interim step? Who will be in the room? How long will the discussions last? What happens next?
Experienced negotiators know that process issues can make or break a business deal.
Are you negotiating for a long-term relationship or a one-off ?
If you plan on seeing this counterparty again, then you have some form of relationship. Make that part of your plan.
The relationship aspect of the agenda is almost wholly overlooked by Americans, but in Asia, the Middle East, and other “high context” cultures it is considered a high priority.
Relationship is about trust, information, and expectation of future gain. If you want a strategic partnership with a counter-party, then you should expect to leave some money on the table in the short term
If you consider a relationship important, then you have to make sure it is backed up by your choice of variables. If you don’t want a relationship, then make sure you are not paying for one.
Why do you need a negotiating agenda?
An agenda is a plan, and like all plans it is a valuable way to define what a win looks like, and to keep you on track while your counter-party maneuvers to maximize his gains. An agenda is a mission statement, a tactical roadmap, an early-warning system, and your North Star. It keeps you on track.
The reality is, that you already have an agenda when you negotiate – but it might be terrible for your situation. If your agenda lacks analysis or explicit planning, then you may be letting emotions, fears, and assumptions lead you off-point.
Do you tell the other side about your agenda?
Yes and no. You will decide in advance exactly what you want to share with your counter-party – and what remains confidential. Make sure that you arrange this with the rest of your team, or you may find that you are working at cross-purposes with your own technical experts.
Every negotiation is a duel between two stories – yours and his. Your agenda is like the table of contents for your deal. Just remember that he has his own agenda, and he is struggling to get that on the table first. If you allow the other side to select the variables, the venue, and the relationship, then you are weakening your position unnecessarily.
Final Word: The negotiator that sets the agenda has a major competitive advantage at the bargaining table.