Saturday, February 16, 2008

SPEED LIMIT: 7 - Don't Compromise your Negotiation!

I’m visiting relatives in a retirement community here in Florida and posted all over the rather large set of roads that weave their way around the complex is what I think is one of the most astounding road signs I have ever seen. I picture it here at the top of this posting: SPEED LIMIT 7.

Why is this sign astounding to me? Well I am going to let the following (completely made up) vignette describe my fantasy of how this sign came to be.

Hank Lieb, Chairperson of the Royal Majestic Palm Garden Condominium Owner’s Association

Myrna Lewis, Resident and honorary chairperson of the Citizen’s Patrol
Stephen Gold, Resident

Our story unfolds…

Hank: Ladies and Gentlemen, I call this special meeting of the Association to order. Our goal tonight is to agree on a speed limit for the condominium’s roadways. As you know, at prior meetings, speed limits of 5 and 10 have been suggested.

Myrna: Hank, you know how I feel about this. My years of patrolling tell me that it just has to be 5. Any faster than that and we risk injury to pedestrians and an increased number of head-on collisions.

Stephen: Now hold on, Myrna, 5 is way too slow, and even 10 is too slow. I’m willing to settle for 10 but no slower than that.

Myrna (shaking her head and pointing her finger at Stephen): Now Stephen, let’s not go through that again. This is why we are having this special meeting – last time the meeting went over two hours, with your insisting of these ridiculously high speed zones in our complex. May I remind you that this is not the Autobahn! I…

Stephen (interrupting): What “autobahn”? We just want to have a speed limit that makes sense!

This continues for several minutes with residents taking up sides in the “5” and “10” camp. It begins to get a bit ugly and loud. Hank steps in.

Hank: Myrna, Steve, stop this. Everybody STOP! I’ve listened to enough. We obviously cannot come to an agreement here. I am going to suggest a compromise. Let’s go with 7. It’s between 5 and 10 and it should make you both happy. Meeting adjourned.

Stephen: Wait! Halfway between 10 and 5 is 7.5, that should be rounded to 8.
Myrna (at the same time): I told you that anything above 5 is too fast!

Flash forward 3 weeks: Despite the acrimony, the association went ahead with Hank’s suggestion and approved the motion to make the speed limit 7 for the roadways. There were over 100 of these signs that had to be made up. Off-the-shelf signs for speed limits of 5 and 10 were available at ½ the price. Nobody’s speedometer has a position for 7. Stephen was unhappy with the result. Myrna was unhappy with the result. People attempting to drive at 7 miles an hour ended up looking at their speedometers more than the road - and the number of accidents actually increased from the days in which no speed limit was posted at all.

So what’s astounding to me? As a project manager, I know that compromise is important and often leads to excellent solutions. I also know that there are times when we want to avoid it like the plague. This was one of those times, and yet – and yet, this sign actually exists, in quantity at this complex, which tells me that compromise was so important to this group that it went to the point that Speed Limit 7 signs were actually produced, mounted, and have been in place for years.

Before I give my advice about how this fictional meeting (but real result) could have been improved, I want to reference an important tool in negotiation: the Thomas-Kilmann Mode Instrument. You can find out more about this excellent tool by going directly to the Thomas-Kilmann website from which some of the descriptions below are taken.

The Thomas-Kilmann Mode Instrument measures a person's behavior in conflict situations – those dramas in which the concerns of two parties appear to be incompatible. When conflict arises, we can describe behavior along two basic dimensions: (1) assertiveness, the extent to which the party attempts to satisfy their own concerns, and (2) cooperativeness, the extent to which the party attempts to satisfy the other party’s concerns. This yields a two-by-two matrix (yes, another one of those) that has five regions, as described below:

1. Competing is assertive and uncooperative -- an individual pursues his own concerns at the other person's expense. This is a power-oriented mode in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position -- your ability to argue, your rank, or economic sanctions. Competing means "standing up for your rights," defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.
2. Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative -- the complete opposite of competing. When accommodating, the individual neglects his own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person's order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another's point of view.
3. Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative -- the person neither pursues his own concerns nor those of the other individual. Thus he does not deal with the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.
4. Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative -- the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other's insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.
5. Compromising is moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. The objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. It falls intermediate between competing and accommodating. Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding, but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.

Compromising sounds nice, doesn’t it? We do this a lot to settle spats between children. But it is not always the best solution because it does not get to the root cause, and often leaves both parties unfulfilled and not in step with the chosen direction. And, as we see in the case of this Association, it ended up with a decision which cost more and was less effective.

What should the Association have done? I’ll give you my opinion. First of all, work from facts. In Florida, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of complexes like this one. A bit of research (i.e. benchmarking) could have uncovered what other best-in-class roadway systems like theirs were doing. This, coupled with accident data, could have pointed to a speed limit that was effective. They also should have taken into account the cost of the signs. If I were Hank, I would have mandated that the parties actually work together on this research and would have made them responsible (as a team) to collaborate on a decision that they jointly own and would bring to a meeting. Sure, there would be a “storming” phase between Stephen and Myrna, but it would likely have been followed (eventually) by a performing phase in which they come to the table with data and a pre-agreed solution that they both could stand behind.

So when you are next in Florida, drive carefully and obey all speed limits! You do NOT want Myrna Lewis to pull you over, believe you me!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Also check out at an alternative to the Thomas Kilman at

It's similar in many ways but costs 1/3 as much and has an interesting cultural feature.


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