Book recommendation: Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury

Last week I saw this story about how Northamptonshire County Council hopes to deal with the financial difficulty it is in by renegotiating its supplier contracts. Taken on face value, if 70 per cent of spending is through contracts with external suppliers it makes sense to seek to reduce expenditure by renegotiating some or all of those contracts. The expert cited in the article is, rightly in my view, concerned about how difficult this task will be, especially given that the suppliers know how perilous the Council’s financial position is.

There is a risk that some of the suppliers might not want to renegotiate, and that others might walk away from the negotiating table, but I think the Council’s team need to try. Step one might be to identify a priority order for dealing with the contracts, taking into account factors such as size, duration, the historical performance of the supplier, etc. But what next? How can the Council negotiate itself new deals it can afford?

This is where my book recommendation comes in. Over the years I’ve attended several courses on negotiation skills but none of them have been as helpful as reading Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. This is a relatively short book, written in a friendly, easy style and it can set you up for any kind of negotiation—in your home life as well as at work. The authors are part of the Program on Negotiation (PoN) at Harvard Business School so they know what they are writing about.

There’s no getting away from the fact that successful negotiations rely on preparation. The better you are prepared the better the outcome will be. And, if I boil it down, the preparations require two main things. First you need to understand your BATNA (the best alternative to a negotiated settlement you have) and the other party’s BATNA. Understanding both of these helps you to evaluate whether the offer on the table is acceptable or not to either or both of you.

The second key message in the book is to focus on each party’s interests and not to take fixed positions. The authors believe that if the parties focus on their interests and think creatively they can often find solutions that both are happy with. This is a way of thinking about negotiations in a way that is not so conflictual and more prone to result in win-win solutions than win-lose solutions.

Connecting this back to Northamptonshire Council’s predicament, they are clearly going to have to do a lot of work to understand the BATNAs relating to so many contracts but that will be an essential step. And although it may be a difficult situation, if the Council focuses on the interests of both parties it may work out agreeable solutions. Clearly the Council is desperately in need of reducing its financial commitments but there are choices. What I don’t think will work very well is the Council making an aggressive opening statement along the lines of “As one of our contractors we need you to reduce your prices by 50%.” The chances are that this will make the contractor defensive and likely to take a position of pushing back with an explanation of why that can’t and won’t happen.

To get the spending reductions it is after the Council needs to have a constructive dialogue focused on “getting to yes”. It has options that can help this dialogue such as reducing the volume of services, reducing performance standards, offering longer contract durations, offering exclusivity, changing the terms of the contract that the supplier feels are onerous or that oblige the supplier to incur higher costs. There could be many more. The important thing will be listening to the other party to each contract on an individual basis, working out what their interests are and then working together to agree a change or set of changes to the contract that give each party what they are looking for.

If this has whetted your appetite about Getting to Yes you can buy the book from Amazon using this link. Also, the PoN’s website is a useful resource and you can sign up for their daily newsletter on the site. Alternatively you can follow PoN on Twitter at @harvardnegoti8 and William Ury is @WilliamUryGTY.