UK: Being Creative In Negotiation Or The Story Of A Paper Clip

Last Updated: 21 November 2018
Article by Andy Rogers and Karl Mackie

Develop your creative talent for breaking deadlock and making better deals

In a negotiation situation where a deal is not organically developing, or when stalemate or deadlock appears to be on the horizon, the imperative becomes how to create a dynamic or reason to move forward here and now. This is why creativity can be at the heart of a turning point or catalyst in a negotiation, making the difference between a conversation that goes nowhere and the reason to do a deal today. It is certainly a skill in the mediator's tool box and one of the reasons behind the process being so successful.

Many negotiations are on very serious issues, so using a word such as "creative" may seem at best lightweight, at worst even facile or flippant, and could appear inappropriate. The question is more about the quality and appropriateness of the tone of any creativity rather than the fact of being creative.

From a paper clip to a house

We find ourselves in the midst of negotiation routinely, even though we might not notice it. Whether it is compromising with our partners, bartering at a local market, or trying to negotiate a bedtime with the children, creativity can be the winning element of a heated discussion in any context. In 2005 one man decided to use creativity as much as anyone would allow him to.

In this instance, a Canadian decided to take negotiating to a whole new level. Having started with a red paper clip that was sitting on his desk, he bartered his way to a house within a year in the following steps (MacDonald, 2007):

  1. The paperclip was traded for a fish-shaped pen.
  2. The fish-shaped pen was traded for hand-sculpted cabinet knob
  3. The cabinet knob was traded for a camp stove with fuel.
  4. The camp stove was traded for a Honda generator.
  5. The generator was traded for an 'instant party' (an empty keg, an IOU for filling the keg, and a neon sign).
  6. The 'instant party' was traded for a snowmobile.
  7. The snowmobile was traded for a two-person trip to British Columbia (Canada).
  8. One spot on the trip was traded for a small truck.
  9. The truck was traded for a recording contract with Metalworks in Ontario.
  10. The recording contract was traded for a year's rent in Arizona.
  11. The year's rent was traded for an afternoon with musician Alice Cooper.
  12. The afternoon with Alice Cooper was traded for a snow globe.
  13. The snow globe was traded for a role in a film.
  14. The role in the film was traded for a house in Saskatchewan.

How was this done?

The essence of creativity is that the 'user' is able to see more broadly and quickly the opportunities offered at any given instance and to utilise them to their maximum, even if they were not part of the original plan. In the example above, we see a series of unlikely 'uptrades' that allowed the negotiator to progress from an item worth almost nothing to a two-storey house. The trades that he made were not planned out in advance; rather he advertised the item to be traded on an online forum, and from there traded up to as high of a value as possible.

The more detailed version of this list reveals that each trade took place surrounded by nuanced circumstances. The original owners of the fish pen, for example, were vegans and presumably did not want a pen shaped like a fish (although certainly worth more than a paperclip). Further down the line, although a snow globe may seem positively worthless in relation to a role in a film, it turns out that the director of the film was a snow globe collector and was thus willing to offer a role in his film in exchange for the item.

How do I unleash my own negotiation creativity?

Creativity is a natural force in human life, and should not be left at the door of the negotiation room. Good preparation does not contradict the value of being creative, but allows an able negotiator to make the more predictable elements of negotiation more automatic so that energy and focus can be left over for the work on creativity and flexibility that is so much part of the toughest negotiations.

Top tips for developing your creative negotiation talent:

  1. Prepare thoroughly so you can be fluid and agile in achieving your objectives, but equally try not to get too fixed on one path or closed to new approaches.
  2. Consider a dispute and what a good result to it might be from a number of angles. The best answer may not be the obvious one.
  3. Improvisation and creativity can come in any number of ways. Keep an open mind.
  4. Often times, an offer can be more or less appealing not because of its actual value, but because of what it represents or how it can be profiled to others.
  5. If deadlocked, remember to be patient and persistent. Review each of the elements of negotiation effectiveness, and experiment with some variation in one of the elements such as environment, team members, packaging of trades, to see if it refreshes the negotiation.
  6. Use simple stress-reduction techniques to help you stay at ease, supporting your ability to stay agile and responsive versus anxious and blinkered – count to ten, do some deep breathing, practise mindfulness, take a break.

For those interested in this and other elements of negotiation skills please see our range of negotiation programmes -

The text in the this article is based on a chapter in 'How to Master Negotiation' by CEDR (Bloomsbury 2015).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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