Tactical Tuesday: Back Burner
Name: Back Burner
Description: Deciding to delay a difficult or sensitive issue until a later time.
This can be very gentle and compromising if you position it as a way of making progress or compromising on easier topics. It can, however, backfire if it is perceived as a power play or a stalling tactic. It works better with complicated technical issues or when you will need input from experts or your HQ. Often used when negotiations have gotten stuck on a minor technical issue.
Intent: Manage the flow the negotiation. Preserve the relationship.
Style: Usually it is Compromising or Collaborative. Can be seen as Avoiding.
Counter: Suggest writing a formal agenda and then sticking to it.
This is one of the timing tactics and it leads to a very big question. If you have two issues to negotiate—one is easy to agree on and one is very challenging. Which one do you negotiate first?
A lot of people will opt to put the contentious, risky image on the Back Burner and discuss it later. Here’s the rationale:
If you can agree on smaller issues, then you have momentum, understanding, and commitment.
- Momentum: Negotiation is a psychological issue, and it is easier to agree when you are both confidant comfortable and optimistic. A couple of quick agreements make the tough issues seem possible.
- Sometime you have to learn HOW to work with the other side. This is particularly true if you are negotiation across cultural boundaries.
- Commitment, engagement, buy-in – they all mean the same thing. You want to bring this deal in. If you have already scored a couple of wins, you are likely to feel like you have some skin in the game. So is he.
The risk of Back Burner?
You are spending a lot of time talking to someone that you may not do business with. That means you are giving them information, investing time, and incurring potentially significant opportunity cost.
Another risk of Back Burner is that it can be used to pressure you into accepting bad terms.
It’s important to make sure that Back Burner meets the following criterion:
Is in good faith
Not used to avoid issues
Not used to manipulate agenda & variables
Not a ploy to run down the clock
Is a source of power for you – not him (i.e.: you are learning more about his company, market, industry, product, etc. than he his about yours)?
In China and other parts of Asia, Back Burner is used very competitively. Because relationship building is widely thought to be important to the post-deal business, the actual substance of the negotiation is often put on the back burner. If you are not careful, you don’t even start negotiating until you are on the way to the airport. That puts A LOT of pressure on the person getting on that plane (usually YOU).
Method for using Back Burner:
- Inventory the agenda. How many issues are there? This should be part of your agenda preparation.
- Is this a hash-out, a bottleneck or a deadlock?
- Are you simply hashing out a complicate issue that will take a long time to work out – even if you both agree? This is a good candidate for Back Burner.
- Some issues can bottleneck a discussion. Contentious or complex technical issues can block progress, but once they are cleared everything else goes smoothly. Often you’ll find that a bottleneck ceases to be an issue after everything else is decided on. Bottlenecks may be a good candidate for Back Burner, depending on the other issues.
- Deadlocks kill deals – regardless of whether if you do them first, middle, or last. Don’t back-burner your deal killers
- Acknowledge the Back Burner process. This is part of the negotiation, and may very well be a valuable concession on someone’s part. If you don’t want to Back Burner an issue, then don’t give in without getting something in exchange.
- Use Back Burner to control the flow and timing – not the agenda. Don’t let him shelve your issues permanently.
- Get acknowledgement that you will be returning to this issue.