This article and case study on negotiation agility has been written with the help of Graham Botwright, CEO of The Gap Partnership.
In the past few months, I’ve observed certain organisations acting in a way that is making them much better equipped to navigate the uncertainty following the pandemic, while others are sitting with their heads buried in the sand, or doing so much disjointed activity they are being ineffective.
I thought it would be interesting to identify the commonalities of those that are being particularly successful at the moment in negotiation and to share them.
So, let’s start with the big picture. We’re living through the biggest global crisis that most of us have ever experienced. It’s destroying lives, jobs, economies and communities. We’re reading about human tragedy and unprecedented changes in society daily and talking about them continuously. It’s all too easy to get sucked into the negative picture and focus on that.
The dramatic, almost overnight global lockdown caught nearly everyone by surprise and the shockwaves have permeated throughout society, raising broader questions about climate change, inequality, community, capitalism and consumerism. The fragility of our species and human impact on our planet has been put front and centre of our fears and concerns in a more obvious and tangible way than ever before. I hear daily commitments to changing personal habits to be less self-centred and to better the world at large. Only time will tell if this is sustained, but never has the need for ‘change’ been so apparent.
I’ve been really impressed by the way humankind has pulled together in the face of such adversity: the levels of compassion, resilience and camaraderie are inspiring. And I have observed normally competitive businesses collaborating with society and each other in a way hitherto unthinkable. The immediate shift to producing medical equipment, the support of key workers and financial support measures have all been admirable examples.
Given that as our context, I am even more passionate today about the role that negotiation can play in supporting businesses throughout the world than I was pre-crisis.
Negotiation is often seen as a niche skill required ad hoc for specific meetings. But if there’s one message I want to convey, it’s to counter that thinking. Negotiation is in fact a skill that, if woven through the very fabric of an organization and really, truly instilled throughout its culture – will be commercially transformative. Developing a negotiation culture transforms a company’s commercial mindset and ultimately their ability to achieve commercial excellence.
Put simply, it could be the difference between whether your organization survives, thrives, or dies.
Wildberries, Russia’s no.1 non-food online retailer, is a fantastic example of negotiation agility.
Before 2020, Wildberries had been keen to move into the online food sector. When the COVID crisis struck, the online opportunity was clear…but there was a cultural problem: Russians didn’t buy their food online.
Tatyana Bakalchuk, the self-made Russian billionaire who built Wildberries, saw this as the perfect opportunity to rapidly adapt their strategy and operating model. She collaborated with other online retailers to heavily lobby the Russian government into closing food retail stores for social distancing safety reasons. A population who had been resistant to buying food online now had a compelling reason to switch channels, and unsurprisingly gravitated toward a known and trusted brand.
In the first quarter of 2020, Wildberries doubled their revenue by moving into food online. They raised their media profile, negotiated with over a thousand food suppliers and hired more than 3,500 employees from closed hotels and restaurants.
The speed of decision making and deal-making to pull this off demonstrates this key trait of businesses navigating the pandemic brilliantly – negotiation agility.
Agility is an invigorating word. We hear it a lot nowadays – it’s become a real buzzword – and it’s “of the moment” for good reason.
Agility is about being nimble, supple, dexterous, even lively. These are behaviours, or attributes, of great businesses, and not just technology businesses who have almost claimed ownership of the word, it is also true of the most skillful and creative negotiators.
If we apply the concept of agility specifically to negotiation, it’s about being able to quickly flex your strategy and style. Change is all around us. What worked yesterday is unlikely to work tomorrow in different circumstances, in a different market. So, we must adapt. We must be agile.
One of the key impacts of this for businesses is the need to renegotiate much more regularly than before, to keep pace with our rapidly changing world.
I’m often asked for my top tip in becoming a better negotiator. I think the asker is expecting a tactical answer such as ‘open more extreme’, ‘hang tough’ or maybe ‘be collaborative’. Any of these are useful given a specific set of circumstances, but the best counsel I can offer is that no one size fits all.
The most effective negotiator, and my checklist for becoming more agile in negotiation, does 4 things habitually:
First, they assess and analyze the situation strategically, removing fear and emotion from their judgements. They use their experience and foresight to anticipate likely scenarios;
Second. They proactively determine their approach based on the circumstances their business faces, not their personal style preference;
Third. They execute effectively possessing a kitbag of diverse skills and knowledge that ensure high performance, even while under great pressure;
And finally, as the famously agile, heavyweight boxer Mohammed Ali was renowned for doing in the boxing ring, the agile negotiator continuously adapts their approach, adopting different behaviours depending on the circumstances of the moment. They maintain their composure throughout, even in highly charged negotiations. In the words of the champion, they ‘fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee’.
As a final point, let me leave you with these famous words from Charles Darwin:
‘It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that best adapts to their environment’
This has never been more apt for the world we’re negotiating in today.