Thursday, December 27, 2012

Can Games Really Change the Course of History?

At a recent meeting at Sciences Po in Paris, scholars and practitioners from a number of countries heard about a very elaborate game in which more than 150 students played the parts of climate change negotiators from all over the world.  We watched a video highlighting their intense and emotional interactions on the "last night" before their version of the Copenhagan climate change negotiations came to an end.  Some of the students were present; recounting their frustration at not being able to come up with an agreement that would demonstrate to the real climate change negotiators (one of whom was present) what they could have and should have accomplished.  The person behind this game, Professor Bruno Latour, had convinced the students that their simulated success might influence subsequent rounds of actual climate negotiations.  No wonder they were frustrated.

There are various ways games can be used to inform,  and even alter,  high-stakes policy negotiations. I'm going to describe several of them below,  but this only works when the actual negotiators take part in the game in advance of undertaking their own "real life" interactions.  I'm not convinced that the results of role-play simulations involving students or other stand-ins will mean much to senior government representatives. I say this for three reasons.  First, real life negotiators are under enormous pressure to "stick to the script" worked out in national capitols before they are sent off to an international venue.  Every word in the formal statements they present is carefully measured to satisfy competing constituencies at home.  Negotiators do not have the authority to depart from these scripts.  Students, on the other hand, are under no such pressure.  Even when games provide Confidential Instructions meant to mimic "back-table" demands from various internal constituencies, students don't feel the same pressure that real negotiators feel.  Second, real life negotiators care about their long-term careers. They are less likely to get caught up in the spirt of a last-minute or all-night negotiating session in which students throw out the rule book in an effort to reward everyone's hard work or show (their teachers) they can reach agreement. Experienced negotiators have been down the same road many times.  Larger principles -- like national sovereignty and the obligations of the North to assist the nations of the South before asking the developing world to take on more responsibilities -- outweigh any short-term considerations or the pressures of the moment.  Finally, particularly articulate and persuasive students can win over a crowd, regardless of the (relatively less politically powerful) role they have been assigned.  In real-life negotiations, this is much less likely to happen.  However creative the agreement might be that students are able to reach at the end of a role-play, it is not likely to be taken seriously by the real-life negotiators in such situations.

Role-play simulations can be used in three ways.  First, they can be used to give students a chance to experience situations in which they might someday find themselves, offering a quasi-realistic chance to apply what they have learned in class.  When used properly, with the help of skilled instructors, role-play simulations can be very effective educational tools.  Role-play simulations can also be used as part of a research agenda (especially in the negotiation field).   In the same way carefully structured laboratory experiments (involving students) are often used to test psychological hypotheses, role-play simulations, run repeatedly with similar sets of players -- some of whom are instructed behind-the-scenes to try different negotiating techniques -- are being used to determine the efficacy of various negotiating strategies. In my own work, we are using role -play simulations in coastal communities to see whether a particular approach to adaptation planning is likely to change public perceptions about the best ways of responding to climate change risks. (Susskind and Paul, "Winning Public Support for Addressing Climate Change, Solutions Magazine, 2010, pp. 44-48).  Role-play simulations work as a research tool when a game creates a context that can be held constant, while carefully instructed (and matched) participants try different negotiation strategies.  The third use of role-play simulations, that I want to focus on in the rest of this piece, is as an intervention tool in real-life negotiations.  While there may be some overlap with the first two uses, interventions of the sort I am about to describe take an enormous amount of work to arrange and are almost always "one-off."

The United States Environmental Protection Agency decided to experiment with a new way of involving stakeholders in the process of drafting regulations.  They called this Negotiated Rule-making or "Reg-Neg." (Phillip Harter, "Negotiating Regulation:A Cure for the Malaise," 71 Georgetown Law Journal,l:  1982) Without going into too much detail, their basic idea was to recruit a cross-section of relevant stakeholders, with the help of a professional mediator, and see if all the parties likely to complain about any new environmental regulation the Agency issued, could reach agreement on what they thought the new regulations should require. After a quite a few successful experiments (Jody Freeman and Laura Langbein, "Regulatory Negotiation and the Legitimacy Benefit," New York University Environmental Law Journal, 9 (2000) pp. 60 - 151) , the U. S. Congress decided to change America's Administrative Procedure Act so that negotiated rule making is now a normal option. Along the way, several of us made a game called Dirty Stuff (downloadable from for the participants in each new negotiated rule-making to play the night before their first formal negotiating session. The game takes several hours to play. Participants are asked to begin by reading both General Instructions (that set the stage) and Confidential Instructions (to ensure that they play their assigned role in the same way that "real" participants in that role would proceed). Typically, they are asked to play a role quite different from their real-life role (so no one has to worry that they will inadvertently reveal what they intend to do when the formal negotiations begin the next day).   The results are profound.  During the debriefings of the Dirty Stuff game,  participants almost always note the opportunities for cooperation (and not just competition) they now see on the horizon.  During the actual negotiations, I have often heard participants refer to what happened in the game. They do this when they want to gently chide their real-life negotiating partners to work harder to reach a mutually advantageous agreement.  The game provides a common language.  It allows newcomers to get a sense of what lies ahead, thereby increasing their comfort level. It hints at a range of possible options that the parties might never discover under normal circumstances,  in much the way that Bruno Latour was hoping the Climate Change game would.  The key, though, is that the actual negotiators must play the game together and talk together about the results with the help of a trained facilitator.

Here's a second example. The participants in a global treaty negotiation concerning Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) were convinced by one of their members to meet before the official opening of their formal talks,  to play a game.  We had designed a game, called the Global Management of Organochlorines, otherwise known as the Chlorine Game (which can be downloaded from with the relevant teaching notes) simulating a treaty-making effort a lot like the POPs negotiation.  While I was not present at that event, it is my understanding, from talking to several of the participants, that the game helped those unfamiliar with the dynamics of global treaty-negotaition to get their footing.  It also made clear that the negotiators, even thought they were under strict orders from their home countries, could find room to maneuver if they shifted into an informal problem-solving mode prior to making formal demands or commitments. (For more on global environmental treaty-making see Lawrence Susskind, Environmental Diplomacy, Oxford University Press, 1995.)

The Consensus Building Institute, the not-for-profit mediating organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts that I founded twenty years ago, has run role-play simulations for a variety of national and international agencies and organizations preparing to engage in national and global treaty negotiations. (David Plumb, Elizabeth Fierman, and Todd Schenk, "Role Play Simulations and Managing Climate Change Risks," Cambridge, MA, Consensus Building Institute, In my new book with Shafiqul Islam, entitled, Water Diplomacy, Resources for the Future, 2012) we include four linked games we use each year at the Water Diplomacy Workshop ( to train senior water professionals so that they can use these games in their countries to help those involved in upcoming transboundary water negotiations approach them in a more collaborative way.

Role-play simulations can be used as a means of intervening in real-life negotiations, but only if they are (1) crafted in a very realistic way; (2) presented by a skilled instructor who can help the participants reflect on their results together; (3) include both General and Confidential Instructions so that participants feel the strong pressure to stick with the script that they will feel in real life; and (4) invited by the participants in real-life negotiations because those individuals want an opportunity to explore options that might otherwise never get considered. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Learning from Games: The Debate over Role-Play Simulations

Many of us teach negotiation skills and strategy using role-play simulations (RPSs).  These are "paper" games (not computer games) that put participants in assigned roles and ask them to negotiate with one or more counterparts. Unlike the case teaching method pioneered at Harvard Business School (HBS), RPSs not only describe a situation in some detail (General Instructions), but also provide Confidential Instructions for each player.  HBS cases don't come with confidential instructions. We want to ensure that certain negotiation puzzles or challenges will emerge (as each player seeks to achieve the interests spell out in their Confidential Instructions, using the information provided to them). While business school instructors ask students "to imagine" they are the various characters in a real case, RPSs constrain much more tightly what a role player can advocate or accept in a hypothetical situation.  By carefully sequencing RPSs over several days or weeks, an instructor can provide numerous opportunities for students to "try out" a variety of negotiating techniques and build their negotiating prowess. Even though games of this sort have been used for quite some time in numerous settings, including K-12 education, professional degree programs, and military training -- with documented results -- there is a recent backlash of sorts.  I want to summarize the arguments for and against using RPSs to teach negotiation (and other complex skills), and suggest that recent doubts about their effectiveness are misplaced.

The RPSs I'm talking about are based on real cases. (You can download inspection copies for free of more than 100 RPSs from the Clearinghouse of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School along with teaching notes at  The Background and Confidential Instructions portray the attitudes expressed by actual negotiators involved in similar situations.  This distinguishes RPSs from other kinds of negotiation exercises that are highly simplified and entirely fictional, like "Win As Much As You Can" or "Oil Pricing." Also, the RPSs I use to teach environmental dispute resolution techniques include scientific information that has been carefully vetted by experts. While we are eager to teach conflict resolution skills, we also want to convey technically correct information about the "systems" or situations involved.  Many RPSs are designed to "fit" a typical 90 minute or two hour instructional window. Others are intended to be played over several days or in segments over several weeks.  Usually, students receive General and Confidential Instructions ahead of time, negotiate during class time, discuss the results (often comparing outcomes among different pairs or groups) in instructor-led Debriefing Sessions, and prepare Reflective Memos analyzing what worked, what didn't work and what they might try next time. Recently, some of us have added video highlights to our Debriefings.  (My colleague, Michael Moffitt, Dean of the Law School at the University of Oregon, has developed very effective software for students to use in capturing and annotating elements of video-recordings of their negotiations.)

The pedagogical assumptions behind using RPSs are spelled out in a range of publications.  Instead of just listening to lectures, students get to try their hand at negotiating in situations like those they will face at some point in the future. In the protected setting of the classroom (or a professional training workshop), students can experiment with unfamiliar negotiating tactics and strategies with little or no risk to their reputations or financial well-being. By having multiple pairs or groups run the same RPS simultaneously, results can be compared during a Debriefing Session. When video of each negotiation is available, students can clearly see how someone else played the same role with the same Confidential Instructions, but achieved a different result. Assigned Reflective Memos are sometimes used to ask students to consider the cumulative results they have achieved over a sequence of negotiation assignments. Sometimes it takes more than one effort to master a strategic behavior. It is important the students get both personal and group feedback from qualified instructors along the way; the experience of an RPS is only relevant if it is combined with experienced coaching.

As compared to lectures, RPSs offer exciting learning opportunities.  Well-designed and sequenced RPSs, combined with feedback from an experienced instructor, can help students master complex skills. The face-to-face nature of RPSs (as compared to on-line self-instruction) emphasizes that all negotiations involve dyadic interaction.  Feedback from someone with whom you just negotiated is invaluable.  Group comparisons during Debriefing Sessions are often where learning solidifies. Students and instructors who have used RPSs for some time, can see clearly that they help students develop confidence and competence in ways that other teaching strategies don't.

The criticisms of RPSs are mostly theoretical. That is, there have been few, if any, controlled experiments comparing the efficacy of RPSs to other pedagogical options for teaching negotiation.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine which student attributes and contextual variables would need to be held constant, and which measures of performance can be used,  to gauge results.  Nevertheless, there are three conceptual criticisms raised in recent publications.  First, games are unrealistic.  Students are under no pressure to behave or perform in a game as they would in "real life."  Second, only if a student repeats the same game many times will he or she be able to master specific skills.  And, by definition, once the results of a game have been debriefed, there is no way to run it a second time.  Third, students learn in different ways, and some might be better off observing real negotiations than playing games.

Some of the people who say that games are unrealistic don't realize how much work goes into developing serious RPSs.  Those of who design RPSs often base them on our involvement in actual negotiating situations, and build on authentic fact patterns and interviews with real-life role players. While it is true that 90 minutes may pose an unrealistic time constraint, we usually zoom in on just one aspect of a negotiation or a conflict situation so that the "work" required in a game can fit the time available.  We do a lot of pre-testing of RPSs to be sure that the average student will be able to handle the assigned tasks.

The question of whether or not student behavior in an RPS mimics real-life negotiating behavior is more interesting.  Most instructors will not base a student's grade on the outcome they achieve in a game.  We want them to take risks and be prepared to fail.  Does this mean that students don't take their roles seriously, or are they inclined to search for easy compromises when there are no real-life stakes o the line?  It may be true in some instances. On the other hand, I have tried offering financial incentives to students assigned spoiler roles in certain games.  I don't see much effect.  In general, as long as everyone can "blame" their Confidential Instructions or the instructor's mandate to do the best for himself in the game that he can, most students seem willing to negotiate aggressively.  By the way, grades are based on the progress we can track in the Reflective Memos along with a more traditional exam aimed at (1) gauging a student's ability to formulate a negotiation strategy given the facts of a situation; or (2) assessing another negotiator's tactics and strategies.

Do students need to play the same game many times before they can master a particular negotiation lesson?  I doubt it. While it would be possible to keep a "fact pattern"constant and hand out slightly different Confidential Instructions for successive plays of the same game, I don't think it is necessary. Debriefings, Reflective Memos and repetition of earlier lessons in a sequence of games appear to me to be sufficient to "lock in" the lessons we are trying to teach. When I encounter students months or years after they have taken a negotiation course, many are quick to recount the overwhelming significance of a particular game that taught them a life-long lesson.

I don't doubt that students learn in different ways. RPSs need to be packaged with assigned readings, introductory lectures, carefully selected case studies, well organized feedback and analysis of scripted start-stop video involving professionally-actors.  But, RPSs -- when presented properly -- add something to a class that no other teaching tool can match. Learning complex skills requires trial-and-error, reflection, adjustment and more trial-and-error. We could send students out each week to undertake negotiations with their roommates, various commercial vendors, or their parents. Unfortunately, this probably wouldn't get past the Institutional Review Board in my university. Moreover, RPSs allow me to guarantee that specific negotiation challenges will arise from week to week.  I'd rather students faced a range of carefully controlled negotiating situations that we can reflect on together. This should not be to the exclusion, though, of other teaching tools.

Finally, Professor Dan Druckman and his colleagues argue that students probably get more out of designing games than playing them.  There may be something to that.  But, you have to master a great deal of negotiation theory to be able to design an effective RPS.  And, then, you've just learned one key lesson.  On the other hand, I don't think designing a single game is a substitute for first-hand participation in the multiple interactions required by a sequence of well-tested games taught by a qualified instructor.

In a subsequent blog entry, I will review the other uses of RPSs, including helping the participants in high-level negotiations prepare for their upcoming interactions


Thursday, December 6, 2012

How to Give Negotiation Advice

I was asked to comment on a series of presentations being made by students in a class at Harvard Law School.  Their assignment was to generate advice to the head of one of the major sports leagues in America facing a tricky international problem. The student team with the best presentation was going to have a chance to offer their ideas to the Commissioner. I watched as the student teams talked through elaborate power point presentations loaded with detail and elegant visual gimmicks. That's when it struck me that we are not developing or sharing with our students a very clear idea about how to give negotiation advice.

Having been in the same situation (of giving negotiation advice) many times, I tried to step back and summarize what I think I know, especially in light of how my advice has been received and when, in retrospect, it has proven useful. First, negotiation advice needs to be short and sweet.  (Maybe ghe same thing is true with regard to advice on any subject.) When the presentation gets too complicated, the whole message just washes over the recipient. Anything more than a handful of power point slides (if you use them at all!), is too many.  I would suggest starting with a very short statement of the negotiator's problem as you understand it and the gist of your advice in just a few sentences. I would look right in the recipients eye so they are convinced that (1) you understand the problem and the pressures they are facing; (2) you empathize, and you've thought long and hard about what you are going to say; and (3) you have confidence in what you are suggesting.  The student teams I watched, divided up their presentations so that each member of the team had some air time.  Don't do that. It is hard enough establishing personal contact with the person you are advising.

Second, don't try to explain the theory behind your prescriptive advice. Again, this is probably true of any kind of advice, not just negotiation advice. How I reached my conclusions is my business.  If they are asking me for my advice, they don't need to hear everything I've thought about and everything I know, just my conclusions.  Negotiation advisors who are not confident about the advice they are giving are likely to share everything they know with the people they are advising.  In my experience, that just makes recipients uneasy.

Third, stop along the way and make sure that the person you are advising understands each of your key points. When a recipient get's stuck on something I've said -- if they don't understand it, or it doesn't sound right to them -- they stop listening.  So, it's better if I break what I'm going to say into a few short pieces, and then check to be certain they've understood each point before I go on.

Fourth, emphasize the possibility that additional value can almost always be created, and suggest ways of reframing a negotiation in terms of all-gain solution.  Most people entering a negotiation are likely to be thinking in zero-sum terms (i.e. whatever my negotiation counterpart gets, I lose; and, vice versa).  A skilled negotiation advisor, however,  is ready to point out ways that more value can be created.  This can take a lot of pointed questions and several rehearsals.  Nervous negotiators are often unable to hear the kinds of questions that lead to "all gain" solutions.  For example, I often press people seeking negotiation advice to put themselves in the shoes of the person with whom they are about to negotiate:  "What do you think the key interests are on the other side?  What's most important to them? What can you offer them (at low cost to you), in exchange for things you want from them?"  In other words, I try to frame my advice in terms of possible trades or packages that will be mutually advantageous.  And, I ask the person I'm advising to play the role of their negotiation counterpart as we search for value creating possibilities.

Fifth, it's OK to offer contingent advice if there are major uncertainties or assumptions which, if handled differently, would lead to different suggestions.  I think this is especially relevant to negotiation advice. While I'm trying to keep my suggestions as compact and simple as possible, it is, in my experience, appropriate to say: "If X turns out to be true, as I think it will, then my advice to you is this.  However, if Y happens instead, then my advice would change in the following way."  I wouldn't do too much of this, but one or two contingencies will add to, rather than subtract from, your credibility as a negotiation advisor.

Next,  a diagram can be useful. But elaborate power point presentations or complex conceptual schemas are a distraction.  Diagrams summarizing prescriptive advice need to be anchored to real events, dates or steps that make it clear the order in which things need to be done.  Elaborate conceptual diagrams, spelling out theoretical ideas or summarizing various schools of thought, should be avoided.  Someone seeking negotiation advice wants to know the most important things they need to do. That's it.  Negotiation advisor need to be ready with short explanations of "why" if they are asked to justify a particular move; but, these should be held in reserve, and offered only when requested. And, "why" answers should always explain the dynamics involved, not the inspiration for what the advisor is suggesting. Why answers are not like footnotes!  They should expose an additional layer of understanding, not cite a source.  So, for example, a suggestion like, "Don't share all the information you have on that subject until you know whether you can trust the other side," should be followed with, if asked why,  "Because they could use that information to "anchor" in the Zone of Possible Agreement at a point that is best for them and worst for you."

I worry about the increasing use of power point presentations in advice-giving situations.  I think it is a mistake.  It puts a barrier between the advice-giver and the recipient.  Rapport is everything, and power point presentations, especially those with glitzy special effects, get in the way of personal connections.  I don't mind a one page handout (that the recipient can annotate as they listen), but it should not be filled with dense text. Just a few bullet points will do.

Let's turn the tables for a minute.  If you are the one seeking negotiation advice, how ought you to frame your request for assistance?  I might ask:  "I'm heading into a salary negotiation with a prospective employer, and its making me nervous. I don't want to lose the job, but I also want get a fair salary. What's your advice?"  In this situation, I don't want general negotiation advice. I want specific suggestions tailored to my salary negotiation. I want my negotiation advisor to acknowledge my priorities and my state of mind:  I don't want a prospective employer to give someone else the job. But, I also don't want to settle for less money than I deserve. A skilled negotiation advisor knows how to ask for advice, not just give it.

The things unique to giving or getting negotiation advice (as opposed to any other kind of advice) are: (1) general rules, and the theory behind them, are a lot less helpful than suggestions tailored to the specifics of the situation; (2) sensitivity to the way an advice recipient is feeling may be as important as any substantive insight an advisor can offer; and (3) it is important to emphasize the possibility that additional value can be created and almost every negotiation can be reframed in non-zero sum terms.

How negotiation advice is offered is as important as the substance of the advice.  If negotiation advice is offered in the wrong way, it is not going to be very valuable.