Creative Conflict: A book review by Bob Morris

Creative Conflict: A Practical Guide for Business Negotiators
Bill Sanders and Frank Mobus
Harvard Business Review Press (June 2021)

A brilliant explanation of “how negotiating is driven by both competition and cooperation, often at the same time.”

A few books are even more valuable years after they were first published. For example….

In his classic work, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), Joseph Schumpeter introduced his concept of creative destruction. Briefly, he asserts that capitalism is never stationary and always evolving, with new markets and new products entering the sphere. He coined the phrase “creative destruction” to characterize the process during which new innovations replace whatever has become insufficient or obsolete over time.

And then, in Creative Conflict, Bill Sanders and Frank Mobus are advocates of what they characterize as “creative negotiation.” They believe that business negotiation is at another inflection point, a “watershed.” How so? “Over the last half-century, two polar philosophies have ruled the field: the win-lose combat taught by the training wizard Chester Karrass, and the win-win creed of the mega-bestselling Getting to Yes. Both were leaps in their day. But neither fully meets the test of our volatile, disruptive, ultracompetitive world. In a time where problem-solving and problem-finding are of the essence, the old rules go out the window. In short, it’s time for something new.” (Page 3)

Sanders and Mobus wrote this book to show a third way, a more effective way, to conduct business negotiations, one driven by competition and collaboration. Negotiators “need a mix of sharp-edged tactics and collaborative strategies. They need to be tough and creative…Most of all, they need negotiating skills for different situations.” Sanders and Mobus are convinced — and I concur — that “the spectrum of business relationships demands a range of negotiating approaches” and that “basic bargaining techniques, by themselves, won’t guarantee success.”

It is important to keep in mind that Sanders and Mobus have two primary objectives: Help their reader develop a collaborative rather than adversarial mindset, and, master the skills that successful competition and effective collaboration require.

In or near the central business district of most major cities, there is a farmer’s market at which, at least pre-Covid virus, merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now provide several brief excerpts from Parts One and Two within Sanders and Mobus’ narrative. They suggest the thrust and flavor of their thinking.

o “Win-win is a myth. No matter how harmonious a negotiation may seem on the surface, the competition never completely disappears. A more fitting term may be ‘Better for Both.’ How much better for one party or the other will hinge on the relative skill of the negotiators.” (Page 17)

o “Bargaining is a zero-sum contest to capture, an arena where competition outweighs cooperation. Bargainers gain an edge by probing the other side’s flexibility and better defining their own objective needs.” (29)

o “Creative negotiators are divergent thinkers. They believe that every problem has a broad range of solutions.” (44)

Note: In this context, I am again reminded of the observation that if all one has is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Sanders and Mobus want everyone involved in business negotiating to have all the tools they need, whatever the nature and extent of the given problem may be.

o “The most adversarial negotiations contain a cooperative element. It helps to keep in mind that both sides have more to gain by hashing out their differences than by killing the process.” (57)

o “Concessions are double-edged. They can move you closer to a deal or further away from one. Creative negotiators concede slowly, calmly, and in small increments. They agree to split the difference only when it works in their favor.” (81)

o “Tactical deadlock is the ultimate power play, the best way to test the other party’s flexibility and resolve — if you can afford to take the risk of losing the deal.” (103)

Here’s a bonus excerpt from the fourth and final Part: “Never drift into an internal negotiation [i.e. one with other stakeholders]. Plan for it as you would for an external one. Determine your leverage. Set a starting anchor, a fallback, and a walkaway point. In the spirit of matching, consider how the stakeholder might reciprocate for any concessions you make.” (Page 221)

Bill Sanders and Frank Mobus are to be commended for the wealth of valuable information, insights, and counsel that they provide in this book. Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to that material but I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of this “practical guide for business negotiators.”

Here in a single source is just about everything its readers need to know to become attuned to their mental model, “the lens through which they interpret events and relate to others.” They will learn how to “guard against their weaknesses while capitalizing on their strengths [and] control their emotions and keep their eyes on the prize: a bigger and better all-around deal for both sides.”

I presume to add two other key points: First, almost all of the material in this book can be invaluable to both internal negotiations with stakeholders and to external negotiations with others in the business world. I am also convinced that much of the material can also be of substantial assistance during personal negotiations that involve, for example, the purchase or sale of a home, the purchase or sale of an automobile, etc.

Persuasion and resolution are also among the ultimate objectives of a negotiation in one’s personal life, especially during disagreements with teenagers or discussions of politics and/or religion with just about anyone.


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