Greg Dannis is a lawyer who’s spent a career working with school districts in California. He’s a founding partner at Dannis, Wolver & Kelly, in San Francisco. I just finished reading his article “Labor’s Lessons” in the California Public Employees Relations Journal.

Greg writes about labor contracts in schools, specifically; he’s been involved in that area for decades. But it occurred to me that what he says about that applies just as well to business negotiations I’ve been in.

For example, how time in negotiations is different from time everywhere else:

I always believed in the immutability of time — until I experienced negotiations. Bargaining is unreal in so many ways, but I did not anticipate the altered measurement of time itself! This time warp can be calculated between ratios of about 2:1 to 6:1 depending on the activity at hand. For example:

  • When the parties agree to take a one-hour lunch break, in negotiations time this signifies an interlude of two hours — a 2:1 ratio.
  • “We just need a five minute caucus” in bargaining reality means a half-hour — a 6:1 ratio.
  • “We will respond to your proposal at the next session” may in fact mean you will not see a counter proposal for months, if ever. I cannot even calculate the ratio for this.

Even more astounding is how units of time can be compressed. An eight-hour session can metamorphose magically into six and even four hours! This phenomenon rarely happens in the opposite direction, however, in which the parties actually stay beyond the established ending time.

At another part of the same article, he’s talking about telltale signs of developing problems:

  • The Caucus Time/Table Time Ratio. The more time spent away from each other in caucus, the worse the process is working.
  • The “Post-It Index.” At some tables, only the spokesperson is allowed to talk, and team members may contribute only by sending post-its back and forth. In this case, the more post-its that are “flying,” the more trouble you are in.

These are just a couple of witty interludes in a serious article about the future of public education and the impact of school boards and teachers’ unions having to work together. In the end, his conclusion is a lot like what I’ve seen in just about every business negotiation: it’s win-win or lose-lose. No one party beats the other if the conclusion isn’t good for both sides. That’s my way of saying it, but here’s Greg’s conclusion:

We have grave problems to conquer, and if we heed Labor’s Lessons, we can be jointly victorious without either side seeking to be triumphant. We need to reject rigidity and embrace flexibility. For, perhaps the greatest Labor’s Lesson of all is this: The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B.

(Image: courtesy of Dannis Wollver & Kelly)

(Disclosure: I have a family connection to Greg Dannis)

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.