A lesson from the world of football: Getting your team great at negotiating

Negotiation is much more than a competency that we acquire through just one learning activity. Rather it is a craft and skill that needs to be developed over time and, if we are to be any good at it, keep developing. However, organizations frequently fail to appreciate this or make suitable provision. Great benefits are possible if the organization reframes how it approaches the management of developing and maintaining negotiation capability on an ongoing basis.

Negotiation is possibly the single most important skill for procurement practitioners, both to support internal discussions within the organization and negotiation with suppliers. “If you work in Procurement you must be a brilliant at negotiation!”. That is often the assumption, yet many of the practitioners I speak with don’t hold the same confidence in their own abilities.

One of the key issues here is that those who lead procurement teams regard negotiation capability as a ‘badge’, where people are either recruited ‘with the badge’ or are sent on a training programme to ‘get the badge’ in the same way someone might gain project management or time management skills. Yet negotiation is a complex skill and quite unique when compared to many other skills. Learning how to be good at it involves, of course, learning the basics, going on a course or studying the process that underpins negotiation.

But getting good is much more than this. It is something that happens in our brains where knowledge collides with experience, supported and informed by the need to be able to draw on a repertoire of things we can do – ways to respond or act in an ever-changing situation. These learnt skills are brought to life with much deeper levels of emotional competence and our ability to watch, manage and respond to the emotional and body language signals in play.

Given the uniqueness of this skill, and how essential good negotiation capability is to business, many organizations still fail to make any effective contribution. This is not only misguided but the full impact is rarely understood – how would you know whether or not your teams are leaving money on the table?

Negotiation might not be a very physical activity, but organizations can learn a lot from the world of football. Vast sums of money change hands when a club buys the best players, purchased because of their proven skills and abilities (the badge). Crucially however, once a club has bought their new player, they don’t stop there but rather establish a mantra of regular training and ongoing development to keep the player good and develop their skills some more. This is not done in isolation and players don’t hone their skills as individuals, but rather will train together, helping each other, exchanging wisdom – but crucially becoming aligned so they can work as one on the pitch. Players share a common language, so when they plan tactics they can articulate it in ways each other understands. This is obvious stuff, and any football club not doing this would quickly live to regret it. So when we look at negotiation, organizations can develop great levels of negotiation capability just by following this example. Here are the five top tips if you want your team to be the best in the league.

1 Get the badge – The starting point, of course, is getting great negotiation players with the right skills and abilities, recruiting those with good experience and an impressive track record and/or putting the team through good negotiation training programmes.

2 Get a common process and language – Possibly the single most important factor. For a team to be good at planning for a negotiation they need to have an effective toolkit for planning, with a process and language that all understand and share, and ensuring it always gets used.

3 Talk tactics – Help the team build up their personal repertoires of tactics and techniques. Find time and opportunity to discuss as a team the individual tactics that others have used. Share stories, get sales negotiators talking with procurement negotiators and so on. Sometimes this requires little more than finding a reason to get all the key players in a room together and asking them to share what works well.

4 Practice, practice, practice – Practice for every significant negotiation and practice negotiation anyway. It is very easy to set up dummy negotiations with team members playing different roles. Video it and review it afterwards. If there is a big negotiation coming up, role play it, agree who will do what and what people will do if you reach an unexpected situation. Anticipate what your opponent might do and figure out the responses you will give. Practice makes perfect negotiations and you can never do enough.

5 They think it’s all over, it’s not yet – When it’s all over, it’s OK to go to the pub to celebrate but don’t forget the post-negotiation triage. Capturing ‘what worked well’ and what could have been ‘even more effective if…’ is vital intelligence that can help you and others for future negotiations. These learnings might be subtle and can be easily forgotten in the euphoria that follows closing a good deal, but learning how to capture and share this knowledge can help build negotiation capability moving forward.

Jonathan O’Brien

Want to know more?
Read Negotiation for Purchasing Professionals by Jonathan O’Brien, published by Kogan Page. Jonathan O’Brien, CEO of Red Sheet, is a leading expert on negotiation and works with companies all over the world to help develop negotiation and procurement capability.