Category Archives: Negotiation

There’s always an 11th round


A family in Kathputli Colony (called Kathputli "Slum"​ by locals and authorities) in New Delhi, India. I took this photo in Feb 2017 while touring the area with a local resident. The residents are facing eviction by the city...11th round to follow.


There are probably a million variations on the theme – the most prolific of which has to do with not burning a bridge you may want or need to walk across some day.

We can probably all remember being told as young as elementary school, after a playground encounter or classroom outburst, some variation of this aphorism.

In a context equally applicable in life and in business – and with a little more nuance than the idea of lighting up a bridge and warming yourself on the flames – I heard it expressed in negotiation terms – “…there’s always an 11th round.”

A few years back, one of the experts at the Harvard Program on Negotiation opened the program with this phrase.

What I took him to mean was essentially this (to borrow a phrase from the late, great Stuart McLean): the universe is not big, but it’s small. Or, more to the point, your universe is never as big as you think or might like to believe.

The likelihood that you will come directly, or indirectly, in contact with a “former” counter-party, colleague or friend is high enough as to outweigh the inevitably transient feeling of whatever epic smack-down; overtly hostile, patriarchal or smug comment; or “extra juice” you choose to extract from someone over whom you hold advantage or sway.

Like all humans, I’ve fallen victim to believing I roam in a universe big enough to allow me the luxury of acting like an a** on one-too-many occasions. And, like all of us, I’ve walked into that “11th round” and endured the discomfort, dissatisfaction or outright shame about my behaviour during some part of rounds 1-10 with that individual.

Dealing with those moments can be tender to be sure. But avoiding them in the first place is a lot easier…than taking a gamble on whether and when we will end-up in round #11.


Shout-out of the week

The wonderful folks at the Springtide Collective in Nova Scotia have undertaken a much-needed project, called “On the Record, Off Script”. What is it? Simply put, it’s a series of exit-interviews with former Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) about their work, roles and the state of democracy in Canada’s oldest responsible government (1848).

In my humble opinion, it’s worth considering two things:

1) Subscribing to the Podcast on the medium of your choice; and,

2) Donating to help them continue this important work. I have no doubt we will all be in their debt someday.

Let Them Learn From Our Example(s): Time for a Christmas Cool-off

What is it that we wish most for our children in life? Health and happiness. Fulfillment and joy. Challenge and opportunity.

If the youngest among us learn by example, then what are they to take from the past number of days’ events involving the Government and the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union (NSTU)? If you can answer that question without a look of deep and pained confusion on your face, I’ll buy you one of those fancy coffee drinks they only make at Christmas.

There have been barbed, pointed and angry comments about the Government’s moves that – their spokespeople say – were designed to ensure student safety during a planned work-to-rule by teachers; moves which, let’s be honest, have come off looking ham-fisted at best.

There has been hand-wringing, scratching of heads and accusations that the NSTU is continually raising the bar, seeking to maintain gold-plated benefits and get a wage settlement that the province cannot afford, and to which the vast majority of Nova Scotians could not lay claim.

On Monday, Nova Scotia became a national news story because, depending which narrative you believed, students were either unfairly “locked out” of their schools for the first time ever, or teachers were threatening to “leave them unsafe”.

The narrative extremes – and the actions they set in motion – serve to bring no one closer to a solution, and they shed no light for the many parents and Nova Scotians not privy to the discussions at or around the bargaining table. They just want this whole saga to go away.

And the cold, wintry reality is that we are an ultra-marathon further away from a negotiated solution than we were at this time last week.

The conditions precedent to a constructive dialogue, leading to a contract proposal which stands an odds-on chance of being ratified by NSTU members and adopted by the provincial Cabinet have gone south, just like the snowbirds.

So is it time to shrug our shoulders, and dig in for a long, hard winter of labour discontent, hardening resolve and an epidemic of stress throughout our school-aged children?

That’s hardly the example our children deserve.

Although a “charitable spirit” has not been much in evidence over the past week in this dispute, the parties would do well to offer all Nova Scotians this early Christmas present, in three hard but necessary steps:

  • Agree to a cooling-off period. To be effective, it needs to include a suspension of work-to-rule and a commitment to no government/legislative action against teachers. It should last long enough to allow the parties to do their homework, and begin to re-engage constructively in the New Year.
  • Get down to work on their homework:
    1. For the NSTU, the kaleidoscope-of-demands at the bargaining table, with no real evidence that the bargaining committee knows what the members want, has to stop. They don’t get to blame the government they need to own the fact that they have been tin-eared to their membership. Extensive consultation is required, which should include helping to close the gap between ambition and reality among their membership. There needs to be a (no-doubt difficult) reconciliation of what NSTU members want, and what it is they can fairly achieve through negotiation. If the emphasis is not on wages and benefits, but on working conditions – as every teacher I have spoken with claims – then all the time and money needs to be focused on that. If the emphasis is, in fact, more on wages and maintenance of certain benefits – then it’s time to drop the contrivance and say so.
    2. For the Government, they have internal consultation of their own to do. It’s fine for politicians not to want to “let down their side” publicly, and pledge fealty to their boss (no matter how far they have strayed off course). The clear reality on Monday pointed to strong currents of disagreement within the government caucus, which means they have work to do. The $10 million pot of money with a promise to address working conditions has been clearly rejected as a pig in a poke – concrete measures with a start date and implementation plan are required to overcome the deficit of trust made worse by this week’s events. The contrivance that some of these “working conditions” are not within the Collective Agreement, and should therefore be dealt with later is just that – a contrivance.
  • Develop an agreed schedule of talks that begin sometime into the New Year, with a commitment to stay at the table – and keep the cooling-off period in force – while students get educated, and the parties work-through matters with a renewed focus and internal mandates which better reflect where the parties want to end up.

The educational challenges in the classroom and in our schools are real. Teachers deserve our respect for the work that they do, and the care they provide, to our children and youth every day. My father-in-law retired from teaching 20 years ago, and continues to be approached by former students about the extent of the impact he had on their lives and development, often to his great surprise.

The financial challenges we have as a province are also very real. To dismiss them out of hand, and to ignore the debt-burden of the province and the high level of taxation we pay, is to do a disservice to these same youth and children; for they will inherit a rusting hulk of a province if we can’t keep an eye to the future when making financial decisions today.

As a parent I can definitively say that this dispute – and the current work-to-rule action – is impacting our children, and not for the better. 

It needs to stop, and fast. Children thrive in a predictable, consistent environment where expectations are clear and trust is built through following through: what they expect from their teachers, and what their teachers expect of them.

This situation did not develop overnight. Solving it overnight is neither realistic nor plausible. But ending the blame game, rolling up some sleeves and making an honest start – without suspending our students in the middle – is an example our kids will learn from.

Fisherwick-ism #3: Where your eyes go, the car goes

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I took this photo in Naples, Florida in 2015 – under the fishing pier.

I didn’t actually “read” this book – the Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein; instead I listened to it as an audiobook.

I honestly thought the plot (essentially about this man’s life from the vantage point of his dog) was a little wonky, but I had known people who raved about the book, so I went for it.  And, in spite of myself, I really enjoyed it.

As soon as I heard those words spoken during the audiobook, I knew they’d stick with me.  I shorthand them these days to “where your eyes go, the car goes.”

I think about these words often, now, and share them with clients and colleagues.

I don’t think they are simple, or simplistic.  I don’t believe that observing their meaning is solely about some twisted form of manifesting destiny, either – if it is, in fact, possible to manifest one’s destiny.

I do believe, however, that they speak to framing.  Framing a challenge, framing an issue, framing how we choose to see, perceive or address something.

Frankly, I think a strict interpretation of these words in either direction is unwise.  If Interpretation A = eyes toward the ditch means we go into the ditch, and Interpretation B = eyes on the centre line keeps us on the straight & narrow…I choose Interpretation C+.

In my humble opinion, Interpretation C+ equals some variety of these actions: give your head a shake, have a look around, survey the landscape, observe the oncoming traffic, be aware of the road hazards and think before you act.

Don’t stay blindered toward the status quo believing it’s the only route forward.  And don’t cock your head toward the ditch, throw your hands up and proclaim that the arse is out of ‘er.

In a sense, then, these words can become a talisman against extremes in either direction – over-confidence, or defeatism.  Proclaiming victory, or admitting defeat.

And we haven’t even added the factor of weather to the equation.

Fisherwick-ism #2: The Power of Compromise

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I took this photo of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in the Summer of 2014.

Happy to have some ‘found time’ to post – sitting in Ottawa airport after a productive part-day of meetings here, and now en route to Vancouver for a short sub 40-hour business trip there.

I’ve been thinking of this quote a bunch lately – and not just because our family is catching up on episodes of “The Voice”, where Adam Levine (lead singer of Maroon 5) is a judge.

I had a conversation with a friend/colleague today where we talked about the ‘judgement culture’ we seem to live and breathe these days.  The one ably aided-and-abetted by social media where the speed of your pronouncements is a (somewhat perverse) measure of success.

It’s a very male thing — or at least, in the gender-stereotypical vernacular, it is held out to be — to have a need to “be right”.  Being a man, I can attest that the facts weigh heavily in favour of the prosecution on this – a summary judgement wouldn’t be out of the question; we men have a hard time admitting being ‘wrong’.

But it’s not only a guy thing; it’s an all-of-us-kind-of-thing.

The idea that giving in, reducing our take, giving over to the ‘other’ in any given discussion, or relationship, is somehow a sign of weakness is a pretty tough test for anyone to measure up to.

Having standards that high leads to inevitable feelings of embarrassment and shame.  And, as Brene Brown would remind us, that keeps us from living a full and open life – and experiencing Joy.

I worked in and around politics for a long time – a decade and a half.  Too often I saw, lived, embodied and gave life to the stereotypes about why compromise is ‘weak’; why it’s a bad thing, and why we should judge those who do it; those who refuse to hold firm, and give no quarter.

The more distance I get on that phase of my life, the more I confirm my belief in how we have the wrong frame on success, the wrong frame on what authentic leadership is (and can be) and the wrong frame on what comes from creating — rather than claiming — value.

So – yeah, compromise.  The world could use a little more of it, wouldn’t you say…?


Oiling the Machinery of Government: A Primer

Lots of friends in or concerned about Alberta have been inquiring of me in the last week how a transition of government works.

Having observed many, and living, sweating and coffee-Ing my way through a transition from a Progressive Conservative (PC) to a New Democratic Party (NDP) government in Nova Scotia in June 2009, here are some indicative crib notes for the uninitiated.


During the election itself (“Calm before the storm” phase):

  • Political parties with a realistic prospect of forming a government fashion the membership of a transition team, who will endeavor to develop (often quite detailed) plans of how the ‘skin graft’ of the new political leadership will be effected onto the body corporate of the public service (think of this as the M&A integration team);
  • Civil servants do not shut down government and decamp to Florida, as some may conjecture, suspect or fear. They work to analyze platforms of the major, competitive parties, in addition to continuing the work of administering programs and fashioning policy under the laws of the day;
  • The head of the civil service will generally contact a senior member of the leader’s staff (usually the Chief of Staff) of any party that realistically *may* form the incoming government (any party, that is, who is not the incumbent government). This is usually done officially the day before Election Day. This can be a perfunctory call, but usually includes assurances that preparations have been made, briefing binders readied and includes a discussion of how best to make contact following the election, should that party win the election; and,
  • The head of the civil service usually sketches-out recommended changes to the form and functions of government departments/ministries, and outlines retirement plans/timelines of Deputy Ministers, including plans for shuffles and senior leadership changes.


After Election Day (“The sizing each other up” & “Getting down to business”, phases):

  • Once the result is clear, and a concession speech from the incumbent has been given — the civil service move into overdrive. The day after the election, they will ensure transition office space is made available for the incoming government — should the newbies desire to make use of it — although some incoming governments will choose the expediency and comfort of remaining in their caucus offices to conduct the transition from there;
  • The incoming premier (“Premier-Designate”) will officially name a transition team (generally composed of people who will not become staff within the government, at least not initially), to advise her on the major decisions she faces before the end of the fortnight:
    1. structure of her office, and staff appointments therein;
    2. structure of her Executive Council (more commonly called the “Cabinet”, and distinct from all the other MLAs not in the Cabinet but who are government caucus members, aka. Backbenchers). This will include many considerations – the size of cabinet; the actual portfolios to be held and therefore the number, name and remit of the departments/ministries; the vetting and background checks on potential members of the cabinet, often without their knowledge;
    3. the structure of the offices of the members of Cabinet, key hirings in those offices (political staff, MLAs acting as “Associate Ministers” or like-functions, and civil service support);
    4. direct/daily liaison with the civil service on priority matters of the incoming government, and things that require decisions or the exercise of ministerial/executive authority, under the provincial laws/statutes;
    5. recommendations on staffing of senior civil service positions. The head of the public service will inevitably have done their homework, and be making recommendations to the Premier-Designate through the transition team (Deputy Heads/Deputy Ministers are actually appointed under the authority of the Premier, and report to the Premier, even though they serve a Minister). But there will also be a potential need to part with senior civil servants for symbolic and policy reasons (although as others have pointed out, wholesale change is a non-starter for a host of good reasons);
    6. the administration of the mythical “truth serum” to those same civil servants, who will almost invariably deliver a less rosy picture of the provincial finances and general state of housekeeping of many matters of state than had been previously communicated to the public. When this happens within the first 48-72 hours it can be a deeply sobering and positively vexing occurrence (think of this as a major, major post-closing headache that will shape the future direction of the enterprise);
    7. planning the swearing-in ceremony of the new government, including the tone, symbolism, and vision for the future inherent therein;
    8. drafting of the mandate letters for signature of the Premier-Designate (aka. Marching orders) that will guide the incoming Members of Cabinet in the discharge of their duties, and implementation of election commitments (note: these are generally not public documents, although NB Premier Brian Gallant made a show of publicly releasing same last Fall following his election).
  • Boxes full of briefing binders prepared by the civil service will be brought to the transition offices. They will include “briefing notes” (BN’s in government parlance), on issues from the very mundane (think “implementation of revised Public Sector Accounting Board standards”) to the very critical (think H1N1-like matters)
  • Well organized briefing binders will — from the perspective of the civil/public service, at least — outline the mission critical issues facing the incoming Minister/government within that portfolio. These can fall into a number of categories, such as:
    1. the proverbial bags of poo sitting on your doorstep that were just lit on fire;

    2. the policy “punts” that are about to come back into play, stat;

    3. the implications of things that the outgoing government promised or committed to but were not: (a) budgeted for, (b) consulted upon, (c) well thought out, and, (d) worth the paper the speech that delivered them was written on.

  • If not outlined within these binders, then separately analyzed and presented to the transition committee will be the election platform (and related commitments/promises/priorities) of the incoming government, within the historical/recent policy context of said department. This will be an iterative conversation, that will often start with “…so, you committed to do this/these things. We think they will cost xxxx and have this very-long-list of implications. So now, we’d like to ask you these gazillion clarifying questions about what you really, actually meant by this commitment.” (Think of this as legal and accounting ganging-up, supported by internal audit, risk management and the quality assurance departments, to clarify a directive of the board or executive team).

And this is really, only, just-the-beginning (before people even get sworn in to office).

All of this frenzy of activity can literally take place in less time than it takes Gangnam Style to go from a small-time hit to that really-annoying-song-that-is-on-the-radio-all-the-time-and-making-grown-people-with-no-rhythm-do-weird-things-with-their-hips-and-also-those-lasso-arm-swingy-things.

Or, put another way, in less time that it might take your stock price to go from a 52-week low-to-high or vice-versa.

In most of the rest of Canada, this can happen anywhere from every 3.5 years, to at least every 16 or so (the Manitoba NDP have been winning majority governments since 1999).

In Alberta, not so much.


The best piece of advice I received — from a former PC staffer — in 2009 was that I should be prepared “…for it to take 3.5-5 months for you to find your sea-legs”.


My self-assurance and ego notwithstanding — my buddy, as it turns out, was right.

One morning as I made my way to the Premier’s office, long about September 2009, I had a comforting realization that I “knew who to call”. That is to say, most of us had by that point come to an understanding of who we needed to call/email/ask about what, and when.

On-the-job training never stops — it never does in the evolving world of province/state-craft — but the equilibrium of becoming acclimated to the environment, the policy framework and the apparatus of which you are now abiding the folks with their hands on the levers, gets reached somewhere around that point in time.

Does that mean nothing can get done in the first few months of a new government (especially one displacing a 44 year-old regime)? Of course not. Smart people find effective ways to get things done every day.

Not “meeting disaster half-way” is the order of the day. Don’t force a question too early, only to find you get an answer you don’t want, and an outcome no one likes.