Negotiation Do’s & Don’ts in Product Management

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Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

A common question I get from new product managers is how do they get the development team/stakeholders to agree to the terms they’re proposing OR how do they negotiate the terms of product feature and scope?

These should sound familiar if you’re already handling products:

“The designs submitted cannot be completed within the given time! We need more time!”

“We cannot complete all of the stories within the sprint, in time for the demo. Can we postpone the demo?”

“The CEO saw the checkout designs and has asked for massive changes to it before we go live. We have only 2 weeks!”

“The sales team keeps changing its mind about product requirements! They’re never sure of the requirements!”

Before you get into any negotiation, it helps to do some thinking of your own. Here are two things you need to remember:

Things to remember

1. Find your objective

You have an objective from the negotiation Ever negotiation you enter (or find yourself in), first establish, internally, your objective. The objective could vary depending upon the situation — but it should agnostic of the current situation.
For example, your objective can be “Launch the feature” or “Get the teams working together”. Once you know your objective, you’ll know which discussions are furthering the objective and which ones are not.

2. Team capacity

Knowing your teams capacity helps in product negotiations

There is a finite output your team can deliver. If you imagine your team as a car, they can only go as fast or deliver so many km or miles within a given time. Sure, you can push the limits and speed for a while, but that’ll have a damaging impact on the engine. Try to find the sweet spot for your team’s delivery and ONLY when necessary, stretch it.

3. This is not a fight

Negotiations are not fights. They are to be used as a tool for teams/stakeholders to express their views and for coming together as a team to achieve the best possible outcome. Some negotiations, if expertly done, can lead to better team morale and accepted outcomes.

Keeping those two things in mind, let’s look at the Do’s & Don’ts

Negotiation Do’s

1. Do know what you’re going to comprise on

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You can compromise only on one!

The famous triangle should be an indicator of what you can compromise on… without sacrificing quality, the only thing you can cut down is the scope. Even with that, be careful of what scope you cut down, as the reduced scope will reduce your MVP — which can reduce the available functionality. Sometimes, as an anti-pattern, you can pad your MVP with a little more ‘FAT’ that can be cut down specifically for this exercise.

2. Do Demonstrate common goals/bigger picture

Demonstrate the common goals or the bigger picture when negotiating. This could be as simple as a customer benefit or organizational goals OR you can complicate it to show that the entire work of the team can be undone without the set of promised features. It’s a little tricky, but if you execute it with tact, you should be able to rally the team and negotiate a better outcome for the product.

Keep the overall product vision in mind, and demonstrate how the requirement supports (or goes against) it.

3. Do Listen to Understand

Do you catch yourself listening to answer? Development teams are notorious for giving you one chance to be open — if you fail them, they’ll stop telling you about their apprehensions and you’ll have a badly slapped together product with many half baked features.

Mostly, with the right motivation, teams will rally towards the goal — if you treat them with respect and hear out their concerns.

My trick is to acknowledge the problem and ask for solutions. They have thought of the problem for much longer than you have… and they are best equipped to provide a possible solution.

In the words of President Obama, accept a solution that furthers your goal — any compromise that furthers you away from your goal/objective — fight it.

4. Do play the Lose-Win Game, if you have to

This is a bit tricky, but if you can break down the problem into smaller problems and ‘lose’ some of them you can get a better outcome (lose-lose).

So when you’re asking for a feature to upload a banner in the backend, you can sacrifice the validation OR the crop option within the feature. Foresight in adding that as a requirement comes through experience and working with the team.

5. Do Document!

At the end of every negotiation, document the outcome. Identify what has been agreed upon and specify where the agreements took place. You can use that for future reference.

Don’t with Negotiations

1. Don’t start with a No, unless absolutely necessary

Getting a straight no is underwhelming. Your team/stakeholders want to be heard. Give them the time to speak their piece and then say no. Even better if you can avoid the No altogether and replace it with phrases such as ‘Yes… and…“ or, ”I see what you’re saying… but these are the impacts“, or, ”Agreed, but given the impacts, can we do this after…“

2. Don’t express empathy, even if you can empathize

Empathy gets you in hot water. Imagine a situation wherein you empathize with the stakeholder/team — in that case, they’ll expect you to do what’s right (or what they think is right) as you can, clearly, understand what they’re saying.

The trick is to not empathize but sympathize — sympathize with the concerns expressed. But keep your key goals/objectives in mind.

3. Don’t approach this as Us vs Them

Finally, never let the discussion go down the road of us vs them. There is no faster way to bring up a team’s guard and wary than by bringing us vs them discussion, even if you are with them in us vs them. A common instance of this is when unrealistic timelines are pushed on the team and you have to deliver.

Taking the stance that business is unrelenting and they are disconnected from the reality of development will only alienate your team. You cannot rise over the fallen shoulders of others — they’ll associate you with the fallen sooner or later.

Negotiations are difficult to do — they can leave you overwhelmed with doubt; questioning the raison d’etre of your existence. Don’t take negotiations as a personal comment. Just like you, all the parties involved in the negotiation are motivated by something. Finding that out will help you get miles ahead in your career!

Further reading:

  1. Top 10 negotiation skills from Harvard
  2. Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss
    A wonderful book on negotiating. It is radically different from the usual advice you get for negotiations. Read & apply them to reap the benefits.
  3. Video by Chris Voss on the book
    Everything we’ve previously been taught about negotiation is wrong: people are not rational; there is no such thing as ‘fair’; compromise is the worst thing you can do; the real art of negotiation lies in mastering the intricacies of No, not Yes.

Thank you for reading!


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