The IT manager’s complete guide to negotiation

Whether it’s a bigger IT budget, more staff, a new process, or a better vendor deal, it often feels like management ain’t buyin’. But there’s hope.

“Most people think that you’re born with negotiation skills, but more and more, people are realizing that it’s a skill that you can learn,” said Alex Hanafi, the Toronto-based director of program development and international operations with SAB Negotiation Enterprises, a Cambridge, Mass.-based negotiation training company that has helped attain $16-billion’s worth in deals globally. Negotiation training companies and consultancies have been popping up all over the place over the last decade or so, he said, and are getting more popular in the wake of the emphasis on internal employee training in soft skills.

He said, “But people need to recognize that they’re already experts at negotiating.” He said that everything from buying a new car to choosing a restaurant contains an element of negotiating. And IT staff? Said Ted Maulucci, CIO of large condo developer Tridel: “IT is pervasive and underlying everything, so, more than any other department, they are in constant negotiations, and thus have the opportunity to affect the company in a positive way.”

Setting the scenes

Doing the prep work for your negotiation is critical. “You need to start sending those messages ahead of time — you don’t want them to be stunned with your request. Plant seeds about your priorities so that you can build cooperative momentum and reach small areas of agreement even before you reach the bargaining table,” said Hanafi.

Maulucci, for example, practises “budget lead-up.” He said, “You need to constantly show them ‘here’s what we’ve done, and here’s what we’re going to do.’”

“Get as many people involved as you can, from both the higher levels and the lower levels (of your department),” said Gerard Nierenberg, president of the New York City-based non-profit organization The Negotiation Institute and author of over two-dozen negotiation books, including the influential The Art of Negotiating.

Your coworkers and those around you can also come in handy when it comes to what not to do. People negotiate with each other on a daily basis, according to Hanafi, so see what works on you and what doesn’t, and keep a journal where you can record the most persuasive tactics.

Try not to focus on the negative tack, though. “We tend to assume that we should get them to see what the worst possible outcome is, and how not doing it could rebound against us. “The problem is that this makes people risk-averse, since you’re motivating by fear of a bad thing,” said Hanafi, who pointed out the IT field are especially bad offenders in this area, often preferring doom-and-gloom tactics over the positive outcomes of a successful negotiation.

“It reminds me of an old IBM slogan: ‘Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM,’” he laughed.

Put them in the mood

Setting the scene is also important, said Hanafi. “A relaxed environment is much more cooperative than the usual boardroom setting. It’s a big myth that if there’s a big issue that needs to be dealt with that a sterile conference room is the best place to resolve it. You need to get out to somewhere like a restaurant where you don’t have those natural business defences — the most value comes not from competition-style negotiations, but cooperative-style negotiations,” he said.

Said Maulucci: “When we’re under negotiations with outside vendors, we go out with them socially so that we can get to know who they are. Comparing people on paper is much harder.”

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!

It’s important to create a negotiating set-up that makes you feel positive and at-ease, Hanafi said. Dressing well will instill a sense of confidence, and bringing a subordinate into the negotiating room with you establishes your status and leadership qualities.

Another way to establish some power for your side is to write up an agenda for the negotiation. “By establishing an order in which to discuss things, you get process power,” Hanafi said. “But don’t say, ‘Here’s the agenda.’ Instead, present it as an option that you thought might be helpful. When they agree to it, they’re already in a relationship with you now.”

Getting on with it

Hanafi recommends basing your arguments on common interests and principles that will not only benefit you and your unit (in this case, the IT department), but the company as a whole. “It needs to be win-win. Get behind the positions they throw out by understanding their underlying interests — is there a way of coming up with interests that everyone has?” said Hanafi. “Put forth the ‘why’ that shows a way of meeting both sides’ concerns.”

“You need to look for how to separate what they’re concerned about from their demands, and how to satisfy their needs, rather than their wants,” said Will Humphrey, a trainer with the Toronto-based negotiation, mediation, alternative dispute resolution and communication consulting firm Stitt Feld Handy Group.

For instance, most companies want to save money, but need to stay operational to make that money. Maulucci attended a budget negotiation this year where he was requesting more funds, while his boss was demanding that he slash $50,000 from the IT budget.

“They wanted a SQL upgrade and wanted it both ways,” he said. To help them understand, he cited a previous failure around the core switches that brought the company down for six hours. “That made them realize how important we were,” he said.

The IT department’s past positive performance and the hard numbers of $20,000 lost for every hour down was the perfect combination that “brought it down to real terms that they understand,” Maulucci said.

Compromise comes in handy here, as well. The two parties had to hammer out how much redundancy was necessary, and in the end were able to agree on installing some double-core switches for back-up, but stayed away from a separate full-redundancy site. “Make them own the decision,” said Maulucci.

Let’s stay together

It’s important to remember that negotiations never really end — there’s usually a relationship there that requires short- and long-term tending, according to Humphrey. “You need to maintain and even improve the relationship (in the interim before the next negotiation),” he said. “Keep the communication style open and flexible.”

But keep you gloves on

And there will be more negotiations in the future. “IT is shifting from the plumbing infrastructure to a key business side, so we need to liaise with the business side through good communication and negotiating skills,” said Maulucci.

Add in the new all-importance of the company-business-brand package and you’ve got plenty of negotiations for everything from new roles to mission-critical hardware, software, processes, and outsourcer additions (or subtractions). To get there, business and IT, and IT and outsourcers and vendors, will have to meet at the bargaining table many times, both united and opposite each other. Are you ready?

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