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Why Candid Conversations are Key in Partner Negotiations

May 21, 2018

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Bea Bezmalinovic Dhebar

Associate Trainer/Consultant, US

A few weeks ago, I was preparing for a call with a potential prime about an upcoming USAID indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract (IDIQ). The details aren’t that important except that it was our first call and I did something that I think is unusual in these partner negotiations. I told the unvarnished truth. I spoke directly and truthfully about what arrangements would lead to a mutually beneficial relationship for the duration of the IDIQ.

What would you guess happened as a result?

If you guessed that they didn’t call us back, you would be right. However, I was prepared for that. In fact, I would even suggest that was a good outcome given each organization’s objectives.

Let me explain. Negotiating bidding arrangements can be complicated. It’s not just a question of “slicing the pie” (distributive negotiations) or “getting to yes” (collaborative negotiation). It is also about negotiating with an eye toward implementation. Poor negotiations during the proposal stage contribute to bad design, incomplete scopes or budgets, or poor staffing decisions. In turn, these issues can constrain project teams during implementation. Common examples of situations where partner negotiations hamper implementation include:

  • Both sides are in it to win it and will deal with implementation later. Some bids come together without either party focusing on the implementation issues until award. This is especially likely if the proposal teams are disconnected from implementation.
  • There was a clear scope of work, but it wasn’t implementable because the resources, experience, or alignment across the project are missing. In the rush to get the proposal done, the team glosses over legitimate concerns about commitments and targets.
  • Both sides intend to perform as agreed but had a different understanding of what that meant. When partners’ areas of expertise do not overlap, each partner can directly state their expectations and the other may agree but not fully understand the implications of that agreement.

In the IDIQ negotiation above, I had a clear understanding of what would work from my client’s perspective and I knew from past experience what a prime IDIQ contractor wants. For this relationship to work, both organizations need to share a vision of what constitutes a successful team. We potentially avoided years of friction with a prime who had different expectations and hopefully preserved interest in working together where it does make sense.

In this negotiation, as in other partnering conversations, there are three major questions that each organization needs to consider and discuss:

  • How do you make sure that your organization gets what it needs? And related, how can you make sure that your organization gets the best deal it can from a bid?
  • When do you share candidly what you need and what you can offer while staying competitive?
  • How can you make sure that you negotiate a deal creates a solid foundation for what follows?

While I think that there are some solid guidelines for negotiating partnership agreements, I know that there are as many approaches out there as organizations. However, I would still argue that more candid conversations would lead to better outcomes. When was the last time you spoke candidly and truthfully in a partner discussion?


Bea Bezmalinovic Dhebar has more than 25 years of experience working as an international health and development consultant. She has worked in more than 26 countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Her consulting practice includes strategic planning, market research and analysis, and business development, including business development training, management improvement, and proposal development.