When I train my clients to become effective negotiators, I focus their attention on a key strategy to success: expanding the “size of the table; in other words, identifying other related items that meet the needs to the parties and facilitate a negotiated solution. All too often, we wear blinders which narrow our perspective making it hard to discover what else is relevant.
Max Bazerman who specializes in negotiation and leadership at Harvard focused on this issue in his most recent book, The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See. (He also wrote Negotiating Genius, the book I use in my negotiating classes.) His thesis is that we all need to do a better job noticing important information in the world if we want to make better decisions and improve leadership skills. he points to evidence that existed and, had it been noticed more prominently, might have prevented a wide range of “disasters” including Challenger explosion, Enron’s bankruptcy, Madoff’s fraud, the 2008 financial crisis, and Hurricane Katrina’s impact (the potential of which was reported four years earlier in a news article!). The key is to teach yourself how to notice and act on information that may not be immediately obvious.
Why do we often ignore evidence that could have prevented “predictable surprises”? Reasons include:
- Cognitive biases which lead us to downplay the importance of coping with the situation. First, we tend to view the world in a more positive light than is warranted, resulting in under-valuing dangerous risks and failing to prevent negative consequences. Second, we tend to over-value the present and devalue the future – which means we potentially harm generations in the process. (e.g., global warming). Third, we follow the rule of thumb “do no harm” even when it means refusing to accept a “smaller” inconvenience that would prevent a larger loss.
- Organizational incentives which encourage us to focus on one issue and ignore others. For instance, we may prefer to blame other people than take responsibility for action.
- Political dynamics in which some individuals put their own interests before that of the organization.
The solution is to maintain a wider perspective so we can:
- Recognize the threat by scanning the environment for relevant data and analyzing them
- Prioritize the issues. We need to avoid being overwhelmed by competing demands.
- Mobilize action and hold people accountable for it.
One way to do so is by objectively reviewing the negative consequences of past actions and try to discover what other evidence was available that could have led you to a different course, to which you did not give sufficient attention. Similarly, engage in a simulation of a future event and try to discover what else could affect your current course of action, so you can change now. For instance, one exercise that Vistage CEOs sometimes use, is to form small groups, in which members actively try to find ways to put someone else out the business. Armed with such insights, the target CEO can avoid these “predictable surprises.”
Where has a narrow, subjective perspective had a negative consequence for you? How has an objective wide-angle perspective helped you increase success? Share your experiences with us!