Why mastering negotiation is a critical skill for any product manager.

Why mastering negotiation is a critical skill for any product manager.

by Tom Morgan |
30th May, 2022 |
Insight | News
Tom Morgan
3 Jun, 2023

A skilled negotiator influences people and results. They make change happen. Move projects forward—lead teams to victory. Get paid more. And make more profit for their company.

Negotiation is one of the most undervalued skills you can learn. The World Economic Forum rated negotiation as one of the top 10 essential skills required to navigate the modern world.

Few skills are as crucial to a product manager as the ability to negotiate, so why don’t more folk take the craft of mastering negotiating as seriously as they do the role of being a product manager?

I was a product manager for over 20 years. I developed my knowledge through self-directed learning, on-the-job experience, and training from @marty Cagan, Jeff Patton, Teresa Torres, and many others. All of whom are excellent in their fields. I owe much of my product knowledge to their teachings.

What has struck me since leaving the front line of product management is that very little of this training is couched in the hard reality of ‘doing the job’ — The skills of persuasion and communication and the art of getting what you want or ‘need’ to be done against a tidal wave of budget and time constraints, battering up against conflicting priorities and often senior stakeholders pointing in opposite directions or demanding that their way is the right way, which is especially pertinent in large corporations where politics and optics become hotbeds for underhand dealing and bad behaviour. However, the same still applies in smaller startup environments, with startup CEOs hanging on too tightly to the ‘product’ rather than trusting and empowering teams to follow their vision. Some of these can be solved by having the right strategy and the culture in place to support empowered teams, but the truth is, from experience, this is rarely the whole story.

That’s not to say this training doesn’t exist; it’s just often shrouded in a softer language like ‘influencing without authority or ‘communication skills 101’, ‘active listening’. Whilst, in truth, the ‘hard skill’ that is very often not being taught or even offered by Human Resources learning and development teams for non-commercial staff is ‘how to negotiate’. Why is that?

Everyone benefits from mastering negotiation skills.

You might not think of yourself as a negotiator, but the truth is, ‘we are all negotiators’. You may also have a negative picture in your mind. One of sneaky manipulation. Or awkward haggling in a street market. But the reality is that we’re all negotiating every day — as parents, colleagues, leaders, and yes, buyers and sellers. So negotiation is not trickery or manipulation. It’s life. It’s simply about becoming more aware of what you and your counterpart are thinking, feeling and doing. So you can make better decisions that achieve better outcomes.

The problem is that negotiation is often seen as a dark art, a skill for commercial folk, those who strike deals, the closers, the rainmakers. With that, the requisite training is both exclusive to those rainmakers and perceived to be priced appropriately (aka expensive).

Those that make money should be trained about ‘how’ to make better deals seems obvious, right?

The problem is that without a product, there is no money.

  • Securing budget for resources
  • Obtaining buy-in from stakeholders
  • Aligning multiple stakeholders to the product vision
  • Prioritising backlogs and horse-trading features
  • Discussing with your developers or designers ‘what’ it should be
  • Agreeing the terms and appropriate service level agreements with 3rd party suppliers
  • Prioritising a feature for a client; at the cost of a strategic initiative without getting anything in return
  • Debating ‘who’ it’s for with marketing and comms teams
  • Running in circles discussing the ‘why’ after receiving the latest change bomb from senior management

This list goes on. Ultimately though, Product managers are responsible for ensuring that their products are successful. Part of that success comes from being able to reach an agreement (aka negotiate) effectively, but how many product managers have ‘just’ read a book (The ones I often hear quoted are ‘Getting to yes’ or Never split the difference, which are both excellent reads) versus who have actually practised in a safe environment learning the techniques and processes of ‘how to negotiate effectively?

Negotiation is a critical skill for any product manager because it allows them to get the best possible outcomes for their products.

No one is born a master negotiator, they practise and learn from others, and there is a vast difference between learning through reading and understanding through doing.

A simple google search will show you hundreds of articles on top tips for product managers. Many even talk about ‘negotiating your salary’ or tips for negotiating in your job. But I see very few who offer real-world negotiation training.

Negotiation is not just about getting what you want; it’s also about finding common ground with others and building relationships. Understanding that negotiation isn’t just win/win; it is also win/lose, and so much of this depends on your situation. The environment can swing from Win/win to Win/lose instantly. Your fight, flight or freeze response plays a surprisingly big part in this. How you react to someone who is dominating you, how you respond to those triggers that may get your back up or make you run for the hills can be the difference between a good or bad (expensive!) decision for your ‘product’.

Product managers who can negotiate successfully can create win-win OR win/lose (not wrong just different!) situations for their company and customers.

When you master negotiation, you go from being:

  • Uncertain
  • Emotional and fearful
  • Avoiding feeling uncomfortable
  • Misplacing your confidence
  • Part of an unaligned, conflicting team
  • Too easily exploitable
  • unhappy with an agreement

To having:

  • Clarity and confidence
  • Calm and calculated
  • Embracing the uncomfortable
  • Confidence from competence
  • A happy team pulling together
  • Commercially tough
  • Getting to the best agreement

I’ll leave you with this thought. Many top negotiation skills training providers guarantee a minimum x10 ROI on your upfront training investment (Kahvay included).

What would you do with an x10 Return of Investment?

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