IT directors could learn a lot from children when it comes to negotiating with their chief executives. This was the view of Herb Cohen, adviser on combating terrorism to US presidents Carter and Reagan.
Cohen helped the US government to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis, the TWA skyjacking and the seizure of the Achille Lauro ship. He was speaking onboard the cruise ship Aurora at the recent Richmond Events CIO Forum which took place off the coast of New York.
Although children have no formal power or authority, they invariably get what they want, he said. Their success, he explained, is because they are unrealistic.
"They aim high," Cohen said. "If you expect more, you get more."
They also understand the decision-making process in their own organisation, he added. "They don't understand 'no!' They persevere and wear you down.
"One of the reasons we do not do very well in negotiations is that we accept the way the other side formulates or frames the problems. It is never a case of 'A' or 'B' or 'take it or leave it'. You can always come back with another proposal."
To be effective in negotiations, you have to get into the world of the person you are trying to influence, Cohen told the assembled IT directors.
"A chief information officer talking to a chief executive about budgets invariably starts by saying how good his new product or service will be," he said.
But, according to Cohen, this is the wrong approach. "You must start out by asking questions, and by listening instead of talking to get into the world of the other side," he said.
"Take notes, and read them back. Don't argue with management or show them where they are stupid or misinformed.
"Even though you are right, be less judgemental. The board comes from a different world and that is why your negotiations will be cross-cultural."
"Each of us sees things as we are. But there is not one reality, there are as many different realities as people." The real secret, he said, is to care, but not to care too much.
People have to be able to live with ambiguity and to ask the other side for help, he said.
Cohen also warned against moving too quickly. "Speed will kill you in negotiations," he said.