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When Interests and Intents Clash - Making the Right Decision!

There is a wonderful article written by Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist of the Financial Times on 3 October entitled, Theresa May walks into a Brexit trap. In it, Rachman detailed the dilemma that May faced taking on the role of Prime Minister and charged with leading Britain out of the EU. A more pointed note is that, despite senior civil servants' advice not to nail down the date for evoking Article 50, seeking first to ensure that they can negotiate a deal for the divorce and then the economic conditions after the divorce, May ignored them and announced that Article 50 will be invoked by March 2017. Article 50 is the legal process that a member country of the EU will take if it wants to leave the union. Given that there had been no precedents before, and that no one had pre-empted that it would ever be invoked, the Article is pretty vague. But one thing is clear, the minute Article 50 is invoked, the outgoing member country has all of two years to complete the divorce; a timeline which experts say is near impossible. Michael Dougan, a leading European law professor, in a BBC article entitled, Article 50: The simplest explanation you'll find, said,

"The overwhelming consensus is that these things do not take two years to negotiate, the rough guide that we are all talking about in the field is around 10 years."

So why did May ignore the experts and gave up her only bargaining chip with the EU - that of delaying the invocation of Article 50? After all, so long as the UK does not invoke Article 50, the EU has a chance of reversing Brexit. But once it has come out in the open, and there is a hard date for invoking Article 50, all bets will be off the table, and the UK will find an increasingly beligerent EU who will not make it easy for them to get concessions. The UK might well find themselves out in the cold, and suffering severe economic hypothermia. So why indeed?

Rachman summarises that it was for political reasons. If May had delayed the Brexit decision any longer, there may be political revolt. But by announcing this just before the Tory conference, she would have garnered a lot of favourable press, and allowed her to keep her 10 Downing Street residence for perhaps a couple more years. Basically, she traded the nation's economic growth for her own political survival.

This is not a political commentary. In this article, we use this example to exemplify why it is important to understand intent and interests, and their impact on decision making and negotiation. Ultimately, we share some important tips to make sure that we don't choose the wrong option, and sell out our future for present gain.

Every decision is driven by intent

A key learning point here is to note that every decision we make is driven by an intent, and there are personal and group (team, organisation, country) intents. In most organisational decisions, we are usually faced with two - sometimes opposing - intents: the organisational intent that might go down well with stakeholders, and the personal intent, which may go counter to the organisational one. In May's case, the organisational (country) intent should well be economic viability, given Brexit as the operating condition. In other words, the intent should well have been,

"What is the best way for the UK to secure a strong and sustainable economic position, given that we will need to leave the EU?"

When May's intent is articulated in this manner, the best option is not to put in a hard date on invoking Article 50. But of course, this might anger the Conservative Party, which might see her as backsliding on her course to Brexit, and even vote to replace her. But the national intent will have been intact, and that may well be the price to pay.

Ultimately, it seemed like too high a price for May. Instead, she made her personal intent the driving one, preferring something like,

"What is the best way to secure my tenure as Prime Minister, given that the UK will have to leave the EU?"

When stated in this manner, May will see that the EU does not have a say, nor an impact, on her staying on as PM, but the UK politicians do. Hence, she would have to act in a manner that will keep them endorsing her, and that would be to nail down a hard date for Brexit, and that was what had happened.

Interests drive intent

Either of these intents is correct; it basically depends on what interests are driving them. To be sure, both interests are high on May's priority, and she is not without counsel for either of them. Ultimately, it depends on which is more important to her. What she has also failed to see is how she could have made the two interests work. In her mind, and in many decision makers' mind, these are mutually exclusive; you can either get one or the other. This is what Jim Collins calls The Tyranny of the Or. When we view things in such bipolar fashion, and we allow the interests to be situated on either end of the poles, we force ourselves to choose between the two. At times, this is all that we can do. But what if we asked ourselves if there was a way that BOTH these interests could coincide? What if May were to ask how she could secure better economic stability for the UK upon exit of the EU AND also secure her political future? In fact, if she could find this happy medium (and whose to say that she didn't try?), she might not only have secured another two years in 10 Downing Street, but maybe even ten! So interests drive intent, but how we react to these interests, how we commingle these interests, how we create a positive win-win outcome with these interests (which may sometimes be competing forces) are what separate good decision makers from exceptional ones.

Enlarging the pie

There is a concept in negotiations called "Enlarging the Pie". Basically, this is in contrast to the fixed pie syndrome that many people take to a negotiation; and is identical to the Tyranny of the Or that we spoke about earlier. When people insist on positions, and take an all-or-nothing point of view, there is seldom a way to reach agreement. This requires you to settle for your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA); this is basically your fallback plan when you can't reach agreement. Obviously, your BATNA will be a weaker position to an agreement, otherwise there is no need even to enter into a negotiation in the first place. Skillful negotiators will try to steer the positional discussions away from the BATNA, hoping to enlarge the pie, and create a better win-win strategy for both parties. Obviously, this requires that both sides are willing to work on a mutually-beneficial solution, taking all interests into account, and blending a solution that makes that happen. Hence, in negotiation, as in decision making, we need to look at opposing constraints, opposing positions, opposing interests, not simply as targets to be shot down, a process that bends the will of the other party towards ours, but one of collaboration. After all, the alternative would be worse, since both parties walk away from agreement and towards their BATNA.

Choosing the right option

Decision making is not an exact science because we are dealing with the future, and that is always fraught with uncertainty. There are several different considerations to take when finally arriving at the correct decision.

1. Clarify your intent

As discussed earlier, by crafting the intent with different interests in mind, we slant the way our decision will be taken, and this can lead us down a difficult path. Whenever we are dealing with big strategic decisions, make sure that you have perfect clarity on your intent. If you need to, use the Five Why's Technique to uncover the driving force for the decision, and state that upfront. The moment that happens, a lot of the things fall into place.

2. Clarify your constraints

Just as no decision is without an intent, no decision is also without constraints. But a constraint is not a limiting factor - it simply is a required condition for a successful decision. Simply put, you will not be able to get at the right decision if you don't meet all your constraints. Obviously, the more constraints you have, the more difficult it is for you to converge onto a decision. Which is why you might have to do some constraint pruning - either relax the constraint, or get some other party to be responsible for meeting that constraint.

3. Expand your perspectives

If you look upon your situation from one point of view, you will certainly see only certain aspects of the situation that perspective affords you. For example, the Tyranny of the Or is one perspective. With that, you have to choose either of the positions available to you. But as you shift your perspective, perhaps to Enlarging the Pie, you will see a new perspective, and that new perspective will then give you new ideas, new options, new solutions. You might even like to get a Devil's Advocate, or a contrarian, into your discussions simply to have a different point of view, and from there, to uncover new ideas. If you don't learn to expand your perspectives, you cannot hope to get getter solutions.

4. Clarify your assumptions

Since we are working on the future, we need to clarify what fuels the way we view the future. By first articulating our assumptions, and then seeing the impact of the variability of these assumptions on our situation, we are able to build the best case, worst case, and most likely case scenarios. Yet, that is not all. From here, we can see which of the options that are currently open to us are riskier, which of the most-likely scenarios lie dangerously close to the worst-case, and whether we can take appropriate steps, either of mitigating the worst case by padding the option with more defences against the downside, or of choosing another option, even if this seemed the better choice at face value.

5. Clarify your emotions

Lastly, and this is by no means a small point, we need to clarify our emotions. In a similar way as we identify our decision intent, we should also identify what emotions we feel about the situation, the options, the decision. This is because, according to Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahnemann, System 1 is never wrong. System 1 refers to the automatic decision making processes of our limbic system - the one that makes decisions based on gut instinct. So if your gut instinct is telling you to do one thing, and your rational brain is telling you to do something else, take heed. There is probably something wrong with your decision, and you need to return to the previous four points - intent, constraints, perspectives and assumptions - and clarify what is causing this tension. You will most likely find the trigger for your feeling of unease and with that, be able to uncover hidden assumptions, perspectives or even constraints that need to be addressed.

Your decision is never 100% foolproof

So, should Theresa May not have committed to the March 2017 deadline? By all intents and purposes, it looks like it was fuelled by other considerations - like wanting to be right, like looking smarter than all the frat boys, like wanting to go down the annals of history as the best prime minister - we will never know. With these constraints and assumptions hidden, we can only wait until time reveals all. But suffice it to say that a decision you take, an agreement you settle on, will never meet all your constraints 100%. If it were that easy, we wouldn't have had to bother with dealing with uncertainty. Things change, environments change, people change. The speed and extent of such change can sometimes put even the best laid out plans in jeopardy. But does that mean it was the wrong decision to have taken? No. It was absolutely the right one, based on the inputs that you had fed into the decision system. This thereby begs another question - should we therefore wait for all the inputs to come in before we make the right decision? Again no, simply because you know you will never get all the inputs, and whatever initial inputs you had might already have shifted by the time you got them all in the row. No, go with what you have, make the right decision, and then adjust along the way. Because your decision will never be 100% foolproof.

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