Friday, February 20, 2009

Building Momentum and Using Deadlines

For Day 6, we are looking at two articles, Building Momentum in Negotiations: Time-Related Costs and Action Forcing Events, by Michael Watkins, and Using Final Deadlines Strategically in Negotiation, by Francesca Gino and Don Moore. We can learn some useful lessons by studying these two articles together, and I believe that you will be able to give the lessons a test-drive during the Balance of Power exercise.

Before we delve into the lessons I have to get something off my chest, and before we do that I should give you some brief background information to help put the articles -- and my gripe, if you want to call it that -- in context. From 1969 until the mid-1990s, Northern Ireland was subject to a dismal, bloody period of inter-communal violence known as "the Troubles." As you will know from reading the articles (if you did not know it already) the Troubles came to an end, more or less, with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which takes its name from one of the most significant holidays in the Christian calendar.

Above is an image from May 18, 1998, showing the leaders of the two main political parties in Northern Ireland at the time, John Hume (Social Democratic and Labour Party) and David Trimble (Ulster Unionist), on-stage with Bono, campaigning for a Yes vote in the referendum on the agreement. I think I recall seeing that picture, or one just like it, in the newspapers the following day. I certainly recall the media coverage that preceded the agreement, and the buzz surrounding the Easter deadline, a deadline that had appeared in late March 1998.

Refereeing the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement was former U.S. senator George Mitchell. In the Building Momentum article, Michael Watkins states that Mitchell established the Easter deadline "[w]ith the backing of the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland." I think he is leaving out an important fact, one that has to do with the evolution and ownership of the deadline. In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I only learned this pertinent fact a few months ago.

Back in the Spring of 1998, I was following the peace process quite closely, even though I was 3,000 miles away and busy with my last semester at law school. What I remember about the Easter deadline is the impression that Mitchell had imposed it on the parties unilaterally, and it seems I was mistaken. As for the provenance of my erroneous impression, I'm a bit murky after all these years. My main source of news was (and still is) the British Broadcasting Corporation, so I'll maintain a fine British political tradition by blaming the BBC.

In 2001, the Harvard Business School (HBS) published an article called "To hell with the future let's get on with the past:" George Mitchell in Northern Ireland. I found the article, and read it, just after Thanksgiving last year while I was putting our course together. One passage in particular brought me up short because it contradicted what I believed about the origin of the deadline.

According to HBS article, after talking to the two governments about an Easter deadline Mitchell then "met with representatives of each of the parties several times, refining his proposal at each meeting." The deadline "emerged out of a highly consultative process," says the HBS article. It was not, therefore, something Mitchell imposed unilaterally; it was something that the parties had agreed to before Mitchell announced it publicly.

Watkins says that Mitchell consulted the two governments. The HBS article says no, Mitchell also secured the buy-in of the political parties that were participating in the negotiations. This is an important difference, in my opinion.

If, indeed, the representatives of the various political parties all signed up to the Easter deadline in advance of its announcement, there are some very important lessons for trainee negotiators to draw out. But they are not the lessons that Watkins writes about in Building Momentum.

For the purposes of our learning, does this matter? Is the point that Watkins illustrates with the Easter deadline still valid, or does the multi-party ownership of the deadline undermine it? I look forward to your comments.


  1. Of course it is still valid!

    If I am understanding you correctly, it seems as though the article makes reference to Mitchell's deadline he imposed upon the negotiation, but what instead happened, was that the parties agreed upon a deadline. Isn't that the exact lesson we are supposed to pull from the article: that deadlines work! Does it matter if the parties agree on a deadline v. one party announcing its deadline? It would seem to be they are not wholly different.

    J. Orell

  2. The Mitchell deadline "works" because there were costs to both sides if an agreement was not reached by (or near) the deadline. The deadline and commitment by the U.S. created a situation where failure to reach an agreeement could have been viewed as leadership failure (among other costs) for one or both sides. Deadlines can be arbitrary, obviously, but here the potential costs to both sides "secured" their "buy-in" whether the deadline was unilaterally imposed or not. It would have been action-forcing either way I believe.

    K. Ziedman

  3. While I agree with the point that "deadlines work", I agree that the "truth" takes some of the wind out of Watkins' argument. To hear that the two parties picked a mutually agreeable deadline, which could have been two months away, or two years in the future is much different than saying that a deadline was forced upon them.

    On the other hand, in what may relate to something we discussed earlier about weakening your position among your constituents by agreeing with the opposition. Could it have served both parties to make it seem (at least outwardly) as though Mitchell had placed the deadline upon them? If one party felt as though they had a lower time related cost would it seem weak to accept such a short time table?

    In any case it does seem illustrative that an impending deadline can be a strong negotiational tool.

  4. The point that Watkins tries to illustrate is still valid in my opinion, but I couldn't help but ask myself what the outcome would have been had it been publicized that it was the parties themselves that imposed the deadline and not Mitchell? Would either party have "credited" the other party with originating this idea? And if so, would it have changed the bargaining position of either party?

    I think there is good logic in Mr. Mancini's comments that maybe it served both parties to make it seem like Mitchell, the mediator, is the one who placed the deadline upon them. This way, neither parties "lost face" and the effect of the deadline was still to be enjoyed by encouraging negotiations.

    As far as the point made by Watkins and its relation to this class, a deadline can surely be a strong negotiation tool but I think it is important to note which party or who exactly imposes this deadline. I would imagine that the imposer would have to have some power, either given by the parties or otherwise, that would make both the parties actually respect the deadline. In other words if, for example, had a completely unrelated political figure imposed a deadline on the negotiation would it have been actually respected by either of the parties? I think not. On the other hand, if a party in a power position enforces such a deadline, it can surely prevent the other party from stalling.