Good IT negotiators are taught, not born

During my 27 years as a consultant, I’ve watched IT professionals continually lose in negotiations with clients. As a result, they are chronically understaffed, lack the right resources and often need to meet unrealistic deadlines. Rather than taking charge of this dismal situation, many seem to conclude that that’s just how life is.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can succeed as IT professionals if we get past our aversion to negotiating and learn how to manage the conflict that’s an inevitable part of life.

The good news is that good negotiators aren’t born, they’re taught. The first thing to learn is that conflict isn’t something to avoid — it’s a necessary component of two parties working out a difference of opinion.

Then you must learn to distinguish between the two types of negotiations: position-based vs. interest-based. Customarily in the U.S., we negotiate based on position. In other words, each party takes a stand and then moves along a continuum until both agree to agree. It takes a lot of time and energy because each party typically makes only small concessions. It can also endanger relationships because it becomes a contest of wills.

With interest-based negotiations, we define the reasons behind our stance — the needs, wants and concerns that brought us to our position. And when we understand our own interests and those of the other party, it’s easier to see options.

Let’s say you decide you need three months to finish a project. The client wants it in two months. Those are your positions. Your interests, however, are that you’ve got five other projects and have just lost a key database analyst. The client’s interests are that an upcoming ad campaign is dependent on the new system. Knowing what’s behind those positions, you and the client can talk about scaling back project scope, halting a lower-priority project and budgeting for a contract database analyst.

As IT professionals, we might feel new to the negotiations scene, but we’re really not. We do it every day, with peers, subordinates, bosses and clients. We just have to stop avoiding it, because we can learn to get better at it.

Wentworth is a senior consultant at Ouellette & Associates Consulting Inc. in Bedford, N.H. She is also a co-author of the book The IT Professional of the Future, due out in early 2008.

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