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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.