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Insights for Procurement Professionals from the Brexit Negotiations

It’s easy to stand at a distance and be an armchair quarterback on a negotiation played out on several nations’ front pages. However, the Brexit negotiations have afforded a world of insights into many negotiations’ issues and challenges. It is helpful to look at some key areas that might give any of us pause for consideration.
Manage your stakeholders

Many negotiations have problems with stakeholder involvement which weakens positions; many more use stakeholders effectively to ensure that the other party get a consistent message. Brexit had a whole set of challenges on both sides, with volumes of stakeholders taking positions which were divergent to the path the negotiators were trying to walk. Of course, within such an international discussion, such challenges are known and understood; there’s a lot of noise which can be ignored, some which may be useful, and the real conversations of note. Understanding which stakeholders are in which position is critical and having space and time within your team to manage them is also vital.

Understand what is being negotiated

Sounds fundamental! But there are issues here both in terms of the broad-brush areas being covered (looking at the entirety of the scope of the negotiation) and the detail of what is meant to be achieved.

One of the features reported in the Brexit negotiations appeared to be a divergence on both of these areas – both what was in scope and the detail. This is the area open to the greatest confusion from the outside, as the detail of the reporting may have differed from what was truly understood by the parties. Allowing for that, there were several occasions in which positions changed dramatically about what was expected or required, which must have impacted overall positions and the standing and trust between the negotiators. When we look at our negotiations, try to be clear about the overall scope and the positions within that scope.

Understand an escalation route

A clear feature, and one which is common in inter-government negotiations, is the concept of getting the fundamentals covered off before identifying the final areas which need senior intervention. A part of the drama of the last few days of this round of Brexit negotiation was the apparent escalation as the President of the Commission, and the UK Prime Minister were drawn into the final rounds. This concept of using ‘Sherpas’ to carry the negotiation load in volume before getting to the last key points is worth exploring in our negotiations – how does that work, who is doing which roles, and are the most senior negotiators actually on top of the progress at more detail levels. Planning this out before the negotiations is a useful tool to make sure errors don’t creep in.

Align behind your messaging

Alongside stakeholder management, getting aligned messaging is critical. A feature of the Brexit negotiations was the unbalanced nature of the stakeholder groups. The European team had many stakeholders to manage, some very powerful figures in their own right. Keeping the alignment of message between the various engaged parties seemed to be a real challenge. Just by the smaller size of the stakeholder group, the UK position was seemingly more agile and more aligned, which must be advantageous. Again, in our negotiations, being crisp about messages at particular phases, and using stakeholders to relay those messages, is an excellent way to plan.

Understand the other side

The motivations and interests of the other side are significant in any negotiation. Recent reporting suggests that one of the ongoing issues for both sides in Brexit was an inability to consider what the other side was genuinely interested. Therefore, which positions were genuinely entrenched ( as opposed to the much advertised ‘red lines’). On one side, there seemed to be a belief that the UK would not deliberately act against its own interests, as it is ( surely) a rational actor in economic terms. Of course, Brexit was never about a rational economic act; it is more about a symbolic change of perceived status. Equally, the UK seemed to believe that access to the UK market for Europe was a significant motivator to reach a deal. It seems both sides misread the intent or position of the other.

In our negotiations, having a clear view of what the other side is motivated by – and a view that is not restricted by our own beliefs – is critical to having a realistic discussion. In negotiation preparations over the years, buying sides often overestimate their importance to the supplier in a way that suggests to them that the supplier will welcome any outcome. This remains untrue in almost every case. Being realistic here makes a dramatic difference to our preparations.

Get feedback by design

The last element is to consider how to get feedback in the negotiation and our performance in it. The post negotiation discussions and interviews with key negotiators remain a part of the communications ploy and cannot be relied on. However, I hope that in the foreign office’s depths and the European equivalent there is some in-depth post-game analysis going on, looking at the features and activities that worked, and those that need improvement. Setting up an approach by which feedback to key negotiations is gathered and reviewed seems critical to the learning and growth for all negotiators, which is equally relevant in any of our negotiations. Asking yourself how that will work is an excellent self-investment.

Of course, Brexit negotiations aren’t over. There are many unresolved issues to work through. There will undoubtedly be a long stream of discussions going on into the future, as both sides address differences and positions and, ultimately, work to resolve them.  As a negotiation learning point, this will be giving us insights and ideas for years to come!

To learn more about our negotiation approach, please contact Mark Hubbard; [email protected]

Further Reading

Blog post: Brexit & negotiation

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