Negotiation in Product Management: the Pursuit of Compromise
When I was a student, I took part in a negotiation exercise. We were given imaginary countries and had to negotiate our rights to the surrounding sea. The whole exercise quickly descended down into what the lecturer politely described as a study in realpolitik. To try and help us curb any dictatorial inclinations we were given the classic work on negotiation: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In.
The book provides a method for negotiating agreement based on applying principles rather than the slow trade-offs that we typically associate with the process of reaching agreement. The principles themselves are quite simple:
- Separate the people from the problem – make sure negotiation doesn’t become personal and descend into name calling and recrimination;
- Focus on interests, not positions – ask the parties to the negotiation why they want what they are asking for;
- Invent options for mutual gain – get creative when coming up with solutions to reconciling the interests involved;
- Insist on using objective criteria – base the negotiation on measurable and realistic outcomes; and
- Know your best alternative to negotiated agreement – always have a back-up if you have to walk away from a negotiation.
While a career in marine negotiation never beckoned for me, I kept the book. Recently I picked it up again and started to think about how the lessons of the book applied to product management. Fundamentally, product management is a compromise pursuit. By taking a product rather than custom approach, we recognise that we have a finite resource and are trying to produce the most acceptable compromise out of our stakeholder interest and prioritise these. This means that product managers need to be master negotiators, we need to be able to work with our users to negotiate the best outcome for the most people involved.
Focus on Interests, not Positions
All product managers deal with requests for features. This may be generalised in the case of B2C where requests can come as an aggregate of user information, or it may be incredibly detailed and specific, especially for those working in the B2B sphere where your users are not shy about asking for what they want. It’s a good position to be in, as people want to tell you how you can make your product work better for them. But there are only so many hours in a day, and you have to prioritise some requests over others, which can lead to disappointment.
This is when it becomes essential to not ask what people want, but why they want it. Are they asking for that specific feature, or are they seeking an outcome and that is how they see it being fulfilled? Think of the well-known Theodore Levitt quote “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”. Users sometimes come looking for specific solutions rather than the outcomes that they actually want and, without being patronising, we have to understand that they may not be best placed to reconcile that interest with a position.
Sometimes the distinction between an interest and a position can be very fine, but at its simplest, you need to ask the user why they want what they want. The ease with which you do this can depend heavily on the type of sector you work in. Where you can’t actually ask your users why they want something, you have turn detective and try and develop your suite of empathetic tools, such as personas, to understand what their interests are in their positions.
Asking why also helps you to understand the information your users have about how your system currently works and whether they have enough to make an informed request. It may be that by asking why you realise that their request is based on a misunderstanding of your system.
Opposed Positions can Cover Compatible Interests
Of course, the interests of any given user do not exist in a vacuum, the main importance of uncovering what your users fundamentally want is in using this information to balance the differing and occasionally opposing views. By getting to the heart of what underlies a position, we can often find that while positions can overreach and oppose each other, mutually beneficial outcomes exist. Imagine two people getting in a car and arguing about going to two different locations. By asking why you can understand whether a third place is acceptable or if one of the two locations fulfils both interests.
At its core, the process of developing a new product or building on an existing one is about getting a user to a yes: “Yes, I will use your product rather than another option.” Getting that yes is a difficult path, but by taking the lessons of negotiation, you can structure your approach to balancing the interests at play.