Project Practitioners > Getting to “Win-Win”

Getting to “Win-Win”

By Michael Aucoin

Many times, we hear someone say that a negotiation resulted in a “win-win” deal for both parties. It sounds like a simple concept, but have you ever thought about what it really means to you? More to the point, have you considered what it takes to get to a “win-win” outcome?

As part of our mini-series on negotiation, in this installment, we address an important foundation for negotiating skill. As much as anything, getting to a “win-win” outcome is a matter of your beliefs, your optimism, and your creativity.

Let’s start with some background. One can identify two types of negotiation, distributive and integrative. Distributive negotiation can also be called “slicing the pie” or a “win-lose” result. Integrative negotiation is seeking a “win-win” outcome, or “expanding the pie”.

The core belief behind a distributive negotiation is that there is a fixed “pie” available to the parties to fight over – there is only so much pie to go around, so we have to slice and distribute what little there is. I maximize my outcome by attempting to minimize yours. This belief often creates an adversarial climate, and, depending upon what is negotiated, there may be beliefs of scarcity and pessimism.

With an integrative negotiation, we believe in a pie that can be expanded (I enjoy contemplating this deeply philosophical concept around dessert time on Thanksgiving Day). It is a belief that fuels optimism and energy, in large part because it encourages us to be creative in maximizing outcomes for both parties. It is an approach that leads to collaboration and healthy long-term relationships.

Culturally, we’ve been conditioned to default to distributive negotiation, based solely upon getting the lowest price for a purchase. That approach may make sense at the used car lot, or for a dramatic episode of “Pawn Shop All-Stars”. On the other hand, do you really want to have a reputation among your customers as someone who is ruthless in bargaining?

Unless there is a clear reason to engage in distributive negotiation, may I suggest that you default to integrative negotiation: always go for a “win-win” result.

When is it appropriate to engage in a distributive approach to negotiation? Here are three general times to consider, along with some caveats.

  • When you are purchasing a commodity – Number 1 paper clips are number 1 paper clips – the exact same item is offered by more than one source. However, consider that other factors may enter into the deal. I would hasten to add a word of caution that a service, and especially a professional service is almost never a commodity.
  • When this is the only time you will negotiate with this party – Go ahead and haggle at the Grand Bazaar on your vacation trip to Istanbul. But when in your local area or with people in your profession, consider that you may encounter the other party again, perhaps in another setting.
  • When you do not care that the other party has a good outcome – Perhaps we are justified in seeking bottom dollar from hucksters and used car dealers. As an alternative, endeavor to do business with people you respect.

When you have decided on a “win-win” approach to a negotiation, here are some tips to consider.

  • Genuinely want the best for the other party, and for yourself – You are more likely to achieve a good outcome when your motives are sincere. The best outcomes occur when both parties are genuinely happy.
  • Focus on the positive – In a negotiation, there will be many opportunities for discouragement. Optimism is always valuable to achieve a “win-win” outcome.
  • Think expansively – Even though one issue may be the focus, consider how this issue is connected to others that are relevant.
  • What are we really after? – Optimizing dollars is the theme of many negotiations. Yet, perhaps money is really not what is most important to the parties.
  • Be creative – This is the fun part of integrative negotiation. We may be bartering over schedule and resources for the challenging project, but are there opportunities to dramatically improve productivity or motivation? Such changes can quickly solve a myriad of problems.

To me, negotiation comes down to a decision to compete or to collaborate. We negotiate to accomplish what we cannot accomplish by ourselves. When we compete, a “win-lose” outcome is put in play. Collaboration enables both parties to win, often in ways that are not foreseen at the start.

Have you had any successes at a “win-win” outcome? Please share them with us if you have!


B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at

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