Life Lesson From A Game: 1 > 0


The first class of ‘Negotiation Skills’ course of my MBA program began with a simple game involving ten 1$ bills. Yet the lesson I learnt from that simple game is one of those life lessons you never ever forget.

The professor asked everyone to get into teams of two and began explaining the rules of the game. Every pair has an imaginary set of ten 1$ bills between them and they are supposed to negotiate how to divide the bills, over the course of one minute. Rules are: 1) bills cannot be divided equally, 2) there can only be one deal, no more, 3)if the pair cannot come to a conclusion by the end of the minute, cash wins the money. While only 20% of the class arrived at a negotiation, nearly 80% was unconcluded at the end of the minute, giving all the money to the cash, with zero in hand. At the same time, one person from every pair of the minority that came to a negotiation were pouting their faces, unsatisfied with the end result. When asked, they said they lost the money to their opponent because they didn’t feel confident with themselves in a negotiation and they found it easier to just give in.

When finished, the professor asked: “is 1 greater than 0?”. Yes, obviously.

1 is greater than 0 and everyone clearly agreed, yet everyone was obsessed about what the person across them would get at the end of the game, which made them willing to reject any amount they were offered by their counterpart, even though it was greater than zero. Everyone wanted to get the majority of the dollar bills if not all, and leave as little as they could, for the other person. In the end though, what they got was nothing at all. An opportunity to be able to go from 0 to even 1 was lost, because all they could think about was getting the 10.

To me, this simple game turned into a valuable lesson that needs to be applied in many aspects of our lives, starting from business. In most business cultures (particularly the region where I reside), the negotiating parties see each other as opponents and perceive the situation as an opportunity to win whatever they can from the other parties’ share to increase their overall win. However, being too greedy can result in no negotiation at all, as per the result of the game.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with my dad for the past year, who is a an exceptional businessman, true visionary and an inspirational role model and have learnt way too much from him in this short period of time. Perhaps even more than I would learn through 5 years of working elsewhere and another MBA degree. One of the things I learnt that impacted me greatly was when he told me about his way of thinking and approach in a negotiating situation, be it a small meeting over coffee, or a huge M&A deal representing a reputable corporation.

Photo taken from http://5wpr.net/profit-sharing/

“When I am preparing for a negotiation, I do not concern myself with the gain of the counterparty.”, he said. “Think of the profit of the project as a whole cake. Both parties can get slices and be full. What I do is before I set my terms on the table, I know what is going to make me happy and satisfied at the end of the deal. I know which results I will consider as a win and which terms are profitable to my business. Being decisive of the amount of profit I need to make from a negotiation, I am not concerned about what the other parties receive from the deal. However, there is a common misperception among people which makes them believe that the gains of the parties effect each other and one takes from the share of the other. If one gains more than you, it doesn’t mean that you are doing bad. If you received a satisfactory profit for your business, it actually means you’re doing pretty good.”

The game we played in my MBA class and the talk we’ve had with my father sometime during the past year have epiphanically connected in my mind recently when I was in a negotiating situation. All of a sudden, I had an awakening about how I need to position myself in these situations, which I normally find uncomfortable being in. Until then, I usually found myself trying to go for a mainstream, equally satisfying result for all parties with a sense of justice taking control over me. At the same time, I realized that I wasn’t really aware of what the ideal gain for me is. I began applying this lesson of 1>0 in a job interview not long ago, which was my most successful one so far, and got out of the meeting room with everything I considered as a win!

I think this is a major lesson to keep in mind, no matter the importance or size of the negotiation situation you will face. When the counterparty wins more than you, it doesn’t mean you don’t win at all or that they win from your share. It simply means you’ve won whatever you thought was right or profitable for you. You’ve won what you or your company needed to win to consider the deal as a successful one. The wins of all parties are their concerns.

And 1 is always greater than 0.

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