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Creating Advantages in the Chaos of Negotiation

Soviet fighter planes in the Korean War were much better in some respects than those of the United States. Among other things, they flew faster and turned better. However, in battle the U.S. fighters typically came out on top (Mind Tools). Why? According to John Boyd, a military tactician who taught the air force how to seek advantages by leveraging available sources of power in chaotic situations, the American pilot’s field of vision was better, allowing him to assess the situation more accurately and more quickly than his opponent and to out-maneuver his opponent’s more agile plane.

In The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, Michael Wheeler argues that negotiation is generally a messy affair, and rather than try to force it into compliance with pre-determined objectives, one should embrace its chaos and cultivate an ability to improvise in the face of unexpected developments, like a good jazz musician or an effective military operator.

In developing this idea, Wheeler relates some fascinating real-world stories and includes numerous discussions of useful improvisational methods.  One such method is the OODA loop, initially developed by Boyd at the Pentagon.  OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, and, when implemented intelligently, it provides a framework for adaptive problem solving that facilitates uncovering, expanding and exploiting your adversary’s weaknesses.

One particularly important part of the process occurs in the orienting stage.  In this stage, you should (among other things) look for mismatches between what you are observing now and what you previously expected to observe.  When you spot such a mismatch, consider whether conditions are worse than you expected them to be.  If so, you likely need to make a strategic or tactical adjustment.  Otherwise, you risk pressing forward with a plan that is ill-suited to what is actually happening in front of you.

For instance, if you offer a concession that you expect the other side to appreciate, and they treat it with disdain, this could be an important signal about what they value.  Thus, when you recognize the mismatch between what you expected to see and what you actually saw, you can begin to identify new possibilities for eliciting more information about what the other side really wants out of the deal.

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