"I need an elearning created on our latest products that starts in three weeks. This is essential for our Sales Reps (SRs) to achieve their quarterly sales goals. I have approval from senior leadership to make this happen. "
Have you ever been on the receiving end of a request like the above? It checks a number of the boxes for a typical training project request, with some added urgency thrown in for good measure. The requestor knows the basics; audience (SRs), timeline (three weeks), why they think training is needed (Essential to SR goals), and how they want it trained (elearning).
It's tempting to start working on a project like this immediately and figure out the rest later. It is "essential", senior leadership seems to be onboard, and the timeline doesn't leave you with room for much more than getting the work done. What you may not realize is that you've just entered a negotiation. The results of this negotiation can determine whether this program is a failure or success.
This post is inspired by the book "Never Split the Difference - Negotiating as if your life depended on it" by Chris Voss with Tahl Roz. Using a series of tactics such as mirroring, labeling, and calibrated questions Chris is able to identify the underlying motivations of his counterparts to negotiate a favorable outcome.
What we're going to focus on in this article are what Chris calls "calibrated questions." These are open-ended questions that help you understand what's motivating your counterpart in a negotiation. In this case, you want to know the motivation and business reason behind the request so that you'll be better equipped to develop a training program that can meet or exceed expected outcomes. However, in order to do that you need to know more than who, what, where and when. You need to know the why so that you can collaborate with them to determine the best way to solve for how, not just what they're telling you to do.
By asking questions starting with "How" or "What" you get your counterpart to start working with you to solve the challenge.
"...the calibrated open-ended question takes the aggression out of a confrontational statement or close-ended request that might otherwise anger your counterpart. What makes them work is that they are subject to interpretation by your counterpart instead of being rigidly defined. They allow you to introduce ideas and requests without sounding overbearing or pushy." - Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz, Rh Business Books, 2017, pp. 152
Here are four calibrated questions to help you decipher the need for and outcomes of your next project request.
1. What's the problem we're trying to solve? Use this question to get to the business need behind the request. We know that SRs need help to achieve their sales goals, but what specifically is the gap we're trying to close?
2. After training is complete, how will we know that an employee has been successfully trained? This question helps you get an understanding of what success looks like to the Stakeholder. In the example above, the request is to train all SRs using an elearning course. How can you know if an elearning course is the right strategy if you don't know what the stakeholder wants their SRs to be able to do after training is complete? This question also helps you understand your counterparts vision.
3. What are the targeted outcomes? If you don't know the target(s), how can you know whether your training program will help to achieve them? In fact, there may be multiple outcomes that need to be achieved. Achieving these targets may require more time and attention than your stakeholder might think.
If you haven't asked question one at this point, this is a great opportunity to use it as follow-up to this question. This will help you to determine how big of a gap you're helping to fill. If they're expecting a big lift, an elearning course alone may not get them there.
4. How will we measure the success of the program? It's impossible to make adjustments if you don't have a way to see results over time. If the team requesting the training does not have a way to track results, now is as good a time as any to figure that out.
Selfishly, how can you and your team show the impact of your training program if you can't see the results? If part of the solution doesn't include a plan to measure the outcomes, this is an opportunity to get that work started.
Avoid asking "why"
Asking why, can cause your counterpart to become defensive. They already think there's a need for training, asking why just calls their judgement, or their leader's judgement, into question.
Regardless of what language the word "why" is translated into, it's accusatory. There are very rare moments when this is to your advantage. - Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz, Rh Business Books, 2017, pp. 153
Asking how or what, forces them to think about the reason they believe training is going to solve the problem. Using the above example, instead of saying "Why, do we need training in three weeks on this process?" ask "How do you think an elearning course will help achieve quarterly sales goals?".
If you are concerned that the requestor doesn't have approval for the request or the necessary backing, you can always ask leadership after the meeting.
Be proactive, create a project request form
The way that Chris suggests preparing for a negotiation is to create a one sheet or document that can be used to guide the negotiation process to a favorable outcome. Taking this advice, I suggest that you create a project request form and use the questions above as well as the standard items (Audience, timeline, stakeholder & subject matter experts, etc.) to define the program requirements. Keep this form handy for in the moment and planned discussions.
Keep your cool
Having a project request form, with these questions listed, will also give you something to rely on in the heat of the moment. This is especially beneficial when you have a counterpart who is stressed and just wants you to build the training, in the way they want, when they want it, without any questions.
Remember, this is not about you, this is just business. The ability of your team to do their job effectively relies on your ability to get them the information they need. Taking a moment to slow down and get your questions answered will save you the time of having to go back and ask them again later.
If you feel yourself becoming upset, take a moment and breathe or walk around. Having a physical form to fill out can anchor you to your physical environment and stay in control of your emotions. Amy Gallo, Harvard Business Review
Summarize your discussion
At the end of your discussion make sure to summarize the outcome. According to Chris, you're not looking for a "yes" at the end of the summary. You're looking to have your counterpart say "that's right". That's how you'll know that you're on the same page.
People say "yes" all of the time even if they mean "no", it's a false positive meant to make you both feel good in the moment. Getting a "that's right" or the equivalent means that you've correctly summarized their position.
A summary of the above request could sound something like this. "Hitting our quarterly sales target is really important. I'm glad we can work on achieving this goal together. Based on our discussion today, our SRs need to increase their conversion rate by 10% in order to achieve quarterly goals. You believe this is because they are unfamiliar with our newest products and they aren't comfortable selling something that they don't feel is beneficial to our customers. You also want training to start in three weeks because leadership has guaranteed an improvement in the next six weeks.
In order to achieve this, after training is complete all SRs should be able to explain the value of our newest products, to our customers, and be confident offering them. We'll measure the trend on a weekly basis and can adjust the program as necessary based off of the results.
Is that correct? "
Granted, the above summary doesn't go into whether elearning is the right or only solution for the job but I think you get the idea. From here, you can work with your counterpart to create a program that will meet or exceed the results you both want to achieve.
Want to learn more?
The easiest way to learn more is to buy the book "Never Split the Difference - Negotiating as if your life depended on it" by Chris Voss with Tahl Roz. Chris and his family also offer training and free resources on their website https://www.blackswanltd.com/.
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