What Do Baseball and Negotiation Skill Building Have in Common?
When I’m on assignment and I make the point that negotiation skill building has a lot in common with baseball, clients often give me a funny look. So, I tell them the commonality is that both these activities, if they are to be done well, require teamwork and practice! This is true in any negotiation involving a team, whether it is a corporate business, labor negotiations, or sales.
I was preparing a team for a negotiation recently, and we began by determining objectives and assigning positions. Selecting the team is a vitally important step that often gets short shrift. In this situation, they just took it for granted that the company’s top people would be on the roster, but in truth, they were not the best choice for the team.
On a baseball team, each player has a very specific set of skills that enables them to do their job. It’s important that they do their particular job well. If you put the shortstop on the pitcher’s mound and the left fielder on first base and switched the center fielder with the catcher, to say this would affect their performance would be putting it mildly!
Now, in this particular situation, we needed two people with specialized technical expertise, an operations person, an administrator, and a marketing person, with the team reporting to an executive vice president at the company. All these professionals had their individual areas of expertise and were prepared to interact and answer questions about their particular field.
Once the team was assembled, we entered the intelligence-gathering/planning/preparation phase. Taking over a vacant room, we converted it into a “war room” for the duration of the negotiation. We had one whiteboard devoted entirely to the other team. It had pictures of the anticipated members of the other team, with bios of each that included children, spouses, schools attended, hobbies, and so on. This board was an ongoing endeavor, changing as we uncovered new material and new possibilities for people on the other team.
Another board had formulas, lists of points we wanted in order of importance, lists of things we could give up.
This war room is where we had planning meetings—where we discussed major objectives, tactics and strategies, risks, alternatives, timing, positioning for advantage, best and worst scenarios, and dealing with the other side’s tactics.
A crucially important aspect of what happened in our war room was PRACTICE! This is precisely the key part that often gets skipped over, even in important negotiations.
Many people talk through issues and have what-if discussions, but that’s not the same thing as role-playing with hard questions thrown at you. Presidential candidates preparing for a debate don’t just think through the issues or discuss them—they role-play them. They have people firing hard questions at them because that’s what they’re going to get at the debate. Their answers had better be articulate, coherent, and on target. Even a consummate pro like Barak Obama did not fare well at the first debate before the last election. Why? Because he didn’t prepare adequately. He thought he could wing it and got caught flat-footed.
This is the part of negotiation that’s like baseball. Imagine a high school ball team with talent to spare but no practice. They can’t execute as well as a team of lesser athletes who have practiced together until they know what to do in any situation that comes up. So they can relay the long hit in to the right player to stop a run, and they seldom miss the double play. Why? Because they’ve seen this tough situation before so when it comes at them, everyone on the team knows just what to do and they execute it smoothly and confidently.
Well, that’s what a good negotiating team does, too. If they’ve played through all the different scenarios together with each player doing their part, then all the players know that each one will do their part, because they’ve practiced it to perfection—and that is a beautiful thing to see.
It was finally time for the negotiation. The team had the right players, and they were well prepared. They had practiced—had videotaped it and received feedback—first with role-playing and practice within the team, then with mock opposition. This process built their awareness, judgment, and confidence. The team was prepared to the point that nothing caught them off guard, nothing arose that they had not planned and prepared for. They were in control of the situation, and they did a top-notch job!
I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the negotiations succeeded beautifully. The team met all its objectives, the CEO and the board were thrilled with the results, and the company was well positioned for the future.
Learn from the above story of negotiation skill building. Follow the process outlined above, and reap the benefits in your next negotiation.