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Airplanes, Golf, and Linear Solutions

Picture this scenario: you’re leading a team that has been tasked to take apart the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380, transport it to a different location and then to reassemble it. Do you think this would be a challenging task? Of course! You will have to keep track of millions of parts and you will have to develop a process for the project that will ensure compliance with rigorous standards.

Even though this would be a mammoth task to accomplish, it is at least theoretically possible, due to the linear relationship between the parts of the airplane. In other words, you should be able (with the help of several professionals) to come up with a linear, sequential process both to deconstruct and reassemble the airplane. We know this is possible because we know that the airplane was built according to a linear and sequential process.

Now, let me present you with a completely different kind of challenge: the challenge of hitting a golf ball.

I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and had the opportunity to play lots of golf, due to the abundance of golf courses and excellent weather conditions. I’m certainly not an accomplished golfer, but I have played enough golf to know that it is a complex game with many variables.

Let’s say you were a professional golfer, and I asked you to hit a golf ball down the fairway. You hit a great shot. Then I challenge you to hit another shot, but this time I would like you to duplicate the result of the first shot exactly. In other words, I would like you to hit the ball in such a way as to ensure that it ends up in the exact same spot as your first shot.

What do you think is the likelihood of being able to achieve this outcome? Pretty slim. You see, golf is an excellent example of a complex activity that cannot be duplicated exactly due to its many variables, just as assembling an aircraft is an excellent example of an activity that can be duplicated because it can be reduced to a linear sequence of steps with limited variables.

Think about the variables that will have an impact on where your ball ends up when you hit that second ball. The wind speed and direction, your stance when addressing the ball, your grip on the golf club, the height you hit the ball, whether it lands on a soft or hard patch of ground, and the amount of spin on the ball. The odds that you will be able to get the ball to end up in the same spot as your first shot are infinitesimally small.

Because golf is complex, it is not useful to create an approach to getting around the golf course linearly and sequentially. But for the sake of discussion, what might it look like if you were to apply a linear and sequential approach to golf?

You have fourteen clubs in your bag, including the putter. To hit the ball a long distance, you use one of your “woods” which are the clubs that hit the ball low, enabling it to travel a long distance. At the other end of the scale, you have “short irons,” which are used for hitting the ball a shorter distance, at a higher trajectory, with greater accuracy. If you were to follow a linear approach to getting the ball in the hole on a par five, it would look something like this:

● Start by hitting with your driver.

● Hit the next shot with the three wood.

● Hit the next shot with the five wood.

● Hit the next shot with the three iron.

● Choose smaller clubs until you get to the putter at the end.

Anyone who has ever played a round of golf would tell you that this would be a completely ridiculous way to play golf and that you would be out on the golf course for a very long time, trying to get the ball in the hole.

A far more effective way to play is to examine the lie of the ball, identify the target area where you would like the ball to end up, assess the weather and ground conditions, and consider your strengths and weaknesses as a player (you likely get better, more consistent results playing with certain clubs than with others). Based on that information (and your instincts) you would decide which golf club would be best suited to deliver the desired result.

Apply This Principle To Negotiation

Let’s bring this back to negotiation.

Negotiation happens between people, and people are complex beings, not linear and sequential beings. It seems very strange to me that anyone would want to approach people — or indeed, the topic of negotiation — linearly and sequentially, but most people do.

While we know that certain things work better with all people (for instance treating your counterparts with dignity, honor, and respect) and that therefore it is a good idea to make these things a part of our standard repertoire, we should not conclude that our standard approaches will work equally well in every instance, across cultures and geographies.

The bottom line is that it would not make sense to come up with a linear, three-step, four-step, five-step (or any number of steps) negotiation program. But this is precisely what almost all leading universities and negotiation skills training providers advocate.

I believe the philosophy behind this approach stems from the process-based thinking that has infiltrated every area of big business. A linear approach could maybe work in a mono cultural, one-dimensional, straightforward type of negotiation, but is impractical for extracting the best deal in a complex, multi-cultural business environment. It doesn’t make sense that you would break down negotiation into a series of steps, such as:

  1. Preparing.

  2. The opening statement of positions.

  3. Exploring interests.

  4. Making concessions (bargaining).

  5. Closing.

You may find yourself in a different culture where the parties are unwilling to state positions or begin bargaining until after you’ve established a trusted relationship. If you were to follow your linear, five- or six-step process to negotiation in that scenario, you might well find yourself out on the sidewalk very early on in the deal.

It is far more useful to follow a due-diligence-based approach to negotiation (like golf), where you assess the demands of each situation and then decide on the best path to pursue, based on a thorough checklist of best and leading practices.

How It Benefits You

If you understand that there is no one correct way to approach all negotiations—just as there is no one standard way to hit every golf ball on every course—but that to be a successful negotiator demands the implementation and use of different strategies and supporting tactics, then you will produce a significantly higher level of results from your negotiations.

If you understand that your default preferences, competencies, and behaviors will be appropriate in many deal-making environments, but not in all deal-making environments, then you set yourself up to negotiate by design instead of by default.

Negotiating by design is what separates those who are good from those who are great.

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