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Our Recent Harvard Graduate School of Design Lecture: Negotiation as an Innovation Skill

As designers, you already have skills that will make you great negotiators.

One hundred and eighty students attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) recently gathered at Gund Hall to hear The Human Factor’s founder teach on negotiation. Students expected to hear a laundry list of unfamiliar skills. Instead, we presented a different message: as designers they already have a powerful foundation to step into value-creating conversations. They need only a mental reframe, and some practice.  

The lecture hall was a typical GSD smattering: aspiring architects, urban planners, landscape designers, and design thinkers – all studying in the pursuit of building better systems and environments. It was the largest turnout for a talk many students could remember. 

Driving the packed crowd may have been the creeping anxiety many creatives share – the worry they’ll enter the workforce, having honed their craft and confidence as designers, and still uncertain how to communicate their value. The fear they won’t be able to get the things – salary, lifestyle, flexibility, perks – they deserve. 

The audience’s pre-lecture questions hinted at this shared angst. Among them: 

  • “How do I represent my creative skills?”
  • “How do I negotiate as an international student, when I have to bring up my visa?” 
  • “How do you diffuse an adversarial dynamic in a negotiation?”

  • “If we are pivoting within the design field, how do we negotiate for a position different from our previous work experience?”
  • “Won’t this sound pushy?”   
  • “Is this okay?” 

Anyone who has gone into a negotiation – a discussion around salary, authority on a project, even who’s taking the lead on the kids’ bath time that evening – knows it’s stressful to feel unprepared or outmaneuvered. It’s stressful to know your talent, but not know how to communicate your worth. The Human Factor’s lecture aimed to tackle that point head on. 

Among the key points, the most important and foundational: negotiation is everywhere. Negotiations are omnipotent and salary negotiation is one of the smallest pieces in this puzzle. After understanding this, we can see the designer-negotiator commonalities emerge. 

Designers know how to prepare for important conversations and create options; it’s intuitive for a designer to find creative solutions A, B, and C, and bring those options to the table. So is the case in negotiation. 

Further, an effective negotiator is someone who can reflect stakeholder value – what do people care about? What are    the intricacies of the systems in which stakeholders operate? What is their ‘currency’? Designers by nature have to (theoretically) measure twice, cut once – spend the bulk of their time gathering context, asking the hard questions, and understand the forces at play before building a better    system or environment. It’s the same in a negotiation that  aims to be value-creating for all parties involved. 

Based on these factors, and from our point of view, designers are some of the most well-suited, and under-expressed, negotiators out there. Both in The Human Factor’s lecture    and our follow-on workshop with smaller GSD student    groups, something clearly struck a chord. Students leaving were surprised that a presentation on negotiation so directly  related to their… designer-ness. According to a few, they’d always thought their creativity and business acumen were      at odds, not complimentary skills. They were eager to learn more and find opportunities to practice. 

Loud and clear. Our team at the Human Factor – designers among our ranks – is also eager to continue exploring the intuitive link between designers and negotiation.                    

Stay tuned! 

After the lecture, GSD students could also attend our small group negotiation workshop.

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