• Stefan Szepesi

Assessing Negotiation Ability at the Agency Level

How to produce a Negotiation Scan? Five Steps to Assess Organisational Performance

I wrote earlier about training being the bread and butter of nearly all negotiation consultancy. Good training can be useful. Outstanding training can even plant the seeds for agency-wide learning as some trainees catch the “negotiation bug”, immerse themselves further and over time spark deeper awareness across their department. But a singular focus on the skills of individuals ignores the severe organisational constraints to effective negotiation that are often in place. This is especially relevant for the public sector. Scaling up training may be a necessary but is certainly not a sufficient condition for organisation-wide learning.

A singular focus on the skills of individuals ignores organisational constraints to effective negotiation

There are a wide variety of ways in which public sector agencies can move towards negotiation as a core organisation-wide competency. But in order to plan “beyond training” one needs to assess where the organisation is. What are the gaps? What interventions may bridge them? Here are five practical steps that can inform such an assessment:

1. Semi-structured interviews

In their book Built to Win Movius and Susskind advise confidential interviews with staff as the primary way to assess negotiation performance. They offer practical suggestions on what questions are productive and which pitfalls to avoid in analysing the findings. The authors suggest a minimum of four up to as much as twenty. In my view, the number depends largely on the size of the organisation and the variety of negotiation settings between departments. At least one interviewee for each major department seems a reasonable guideline with variety in seniority and gender. Ideally, interviews are also conducted with negotiation counterparts. This may be perceived as sensitive, or even awkward, but it need not be the case in practice. Well-prepared conversations with counterparts can avoid questions of substance and strategy and focus on the perceptions of negotiation effectiveness. In effect, the result is a Negotiation 360, a high-resolution picture of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement.

2. Staff Surveys

In-depth interviews with staff yield a wealth of information but time and resource constraints will limit the number to a very small percentage of staff. A subsequent second step can be a negotiation survey, sent to all or a large fraction of agency staff. Awareness of key negotiation principles can be tested and a fuller picture of challenges, whether in individual skills or organisation-wide, will emerge. The survey is best designed after the face-to-face interviews so that certain preliminary conclusions can be further tested on a larger population.

3. Training Surveys

If negotiation training already takes place, a lot can be learned from participants directly. Training surveys are often used pre-training to gather individuals’ aspirations for the training or assess their negotiation styles. Post-training surveys are mostly evaluations. It makes sense to include a few questions on wider team and/or departmental strengths and weaknesses in negotiation in the post-training survey. At this stage there is stronger familiarity with negotiation theory and participants are able to identify to what extent negotiation principles are well applied.

4. Case studies

A good case study offers in-depth insights into one specific negotiation a department or team has been involved in. They are resource intensive but extremely valuable as input into an organisation-wide assessment. The risk of overgeneralising lessons from one case to the entire agency can be managed by comparing observations with those emerging from interviews and surveys. The additional benefit that case studies have, is that they can be usefully applied in future negotiation training, lectures or brown bag talks, and policy evaluations. Ideally more than one case study is used as input into an assessment, and preferably there is divergence in the (perceived) negotiation success of the different cases.

5. Assessment working group

Some or all of the above steps are likely to identify what Movius and Susskind call “champions” on negotiation: staff who enjoy the negotiation aspects of their daily work, are eager to learn more and mentor others, and who strongly identify with the importance of organisation-wide learning. Prior to presenting assessment findings to the HR department and senior leadership, inviting these individuals to provide feedback on the draft findings can be of immense value. Not only are they likely to sharpen its conclusions; they may also suggest ways of bridging the gap that are more suitable to the agency concerned than the ideas of external consultants.