Negotiation Requires a Bit of Improvisation, Like in Jazz

Published in UT San Diego, May 12, 2014

“And all that jazz.”

This lyric is from “Chicago,” one of the best musicals of all time and winner of six Tony Awards. A couple of weeks ago, Barbara and I attended a jazz concert where we heard John Pizzarelli and Ramsey Lewis — and wow.

What fascinated me was the fact that they sort of made it up as they went along. Jazz is all about improvisation — listening to the other musicians, heading out on your own riff, and then surfing back into the mainstream, and then another musician picks it up and sets out again.

Recently, the Harvard Business Review published an article, “Negotiation and All that Jazz,” by Michael Wheeler, a retired Harvard Business School professor. He suggests (a bit tongue in cheek) that if you want to win at negotiating, you should maybe learn to play an instrument.

He quotes Gen. Dwight Eisenhower: “Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy — plans per se are worthless.” But then Eisenhower adds the kicker: “But planning is everything.”

So the connection between jazz, improvisation and negotiation is an interesting one. Assuming the other side is equal in skills and determination, then falling back only on the two mainstream models — win-win or scorched earth — will not be enough to prevail.

You need to take a lesson from another master negotiator, Alonzo “Jake” Gaither, head coach at Florida A&M from 1945 to1969. His famous quote: “I want my boys to be agile, mobile and hostile.” That strikes me as a good opening stance (easy on the hostile, at least until the other side brings out an AK-47).

Wheeler says, “Negotiation entails ongoing learning, adapting and influencing,” which are clearly the exact elements in a great jazz rendition. He goes on, “Negotiation is like dancing on a tabletop in the pitch dark. You need to embrace chaos.” Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are sensitive to initial conditions — sometimes referred to as the “butterfly effect.” (If only I had listened to my mother and stayed with the piano lessons …)

Wheeler quotes Richard Holbrooke, a famous diplomat, “It’s improvisation on a theme (jazz) — you know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there.” (If only someone would invent GPS for negotiation.)

Great jazz musicians listen as well as they play. They suspend judgment, they wait their turn, and when they begin to play they “complement” the tune — they are not discordant — they look for mutuality of the sound, they play off and improve, but at the same time, they also nudge the other musicians in a certain direction.

The jazz artist “works with what he is given.” He can’t start over, he can’t bend it in a “predetermined” direction.

Even though the late Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, had a force field to bend reality, most of us mortals can’t do that. We need to adapt our initial blueprint to reality, not the other way around.

And finally, it is OK to be anxious, to be unresolved, to not only tolerate ambiguity, but to embrace it. You are not the master of your ship even though you may have paid for it. There are things such as wind and waves. And in the negotiation game, a successful outcome is never assured. Even worse, after it ends, and you think you have won, you begin to wonder.

Wheeler talks about “staying in the game.” The idea here is to be both simultaneously calm and alert, open to the process of discovery.

Tom Green, who crafted a $350 billion health care settlement with the tobacco industry in the late 1990s, says the secret to his success is “making chaos my friend in negotiation.”

Jazz is chaotic but also structured and rational. If all else fails, the next time I have to go to the mat on a deal, I am going to bring in a bass fiddle, and if I’m asked if I can play it, I will say no — and then just smash it over the head of the other person. Music to my ears.

Rule No. 353

Listen to the sounds between the notes. They are the music.


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