Using BATNA in Project Management

Do you know what BATNA is? If not, in this post I will share the basics on how to determine one!

photo of Alexei Gabler
Alexei Gabler

Senior Program Manager

Posted on Apr 30, 2021

If you ever managed a project, even an informal and small DIY (Do It Yourself) at home, you know that at some point you will have to negotiate one or multiple items to get your project moving. It can be time, money, scope, tools, people, or, in most cases, a combination of all of them.

As perfect planning doesn't exist in project management, you also know that at any given moment you will need to re-negotiate one or some of the variables because, for example, extra costs showed up, a developer got sick or a stakeholder wants to change the scope a little bit (your better half decided to change the wall's color from snow white to pearl white), or any other zillion things that may change along the way.

So how do you conduct these negotiations in your projects?

Some people will answer that they do it by instinct, that it is a matter of being confident, others will say that it is all about putting pressure on the counterpart, and being aggressive. This "going with the flow" negotiating mindset might work sometimes but did you ever think 'what if I could use a more structured way to have a better outcome in my negotiations?'

Well, Roger Fisher and William Ury did a lot of thinking about this and back in 1981 they coined the term BATNA in their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving in. It is an acronym for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, a structured assessment that better prepares you for a negotiation round by letting you know what are your alternatives and your breaking points. BATNA can be used for any type of negotiation, whether it be a unique task of finding a supplier or a complex problem such as countries' conflicts.

The method created by them to determine your BATNA is based in a very simple 3-step process:

  • First, create a list of potential actions that could be taken if no agreement is reached;

  • Second, improve some of the more promising ideas/actions and convert them into practical options;

  • Lastly, tentatively select the option that seems most feasible in case things go south.

There is no standard form or format to prepare a BATNA. I personally prefer to write everything down in a text file and then organize the ideas in a spreadsheet but you can use whatever resource suits you best. Also, there is no expected timeframe to determine it. Depending on how deep you want (or need) to go into the negotiation to conquer your desired outcome, working on these activities can be very time consuming!

OK, now that you learned the basics on how to prepare a BATNA, I will share a fictitious scenario to illustrate how it can be used in a negotiation round between a Project Manager and its stakeholder during a project. Don't take it too seriously, focus on the main idea.


Applying BATNA into Project Management

Let's say that you are a Project Manager and have to present a resource allocation map to your main stakeholder in 2 weeks but you still don't have 3 FTEs in your team. What are your options if you cannot get them before the deadline? You cannot show up to the meeting with empty hands so you most likely will prepare yourself to negotiate a solution with your stakeholder. But what should you do? Ask for more time? Reduce the scope? Start the project anyway?

Applying BATNA to this scenario, you will create a list with the above 3 options (or more), analyze pros and cons in a set of variables (time, cost, quality, etc.) for each option, take every possibility into consideration and decide on the option that seems most feasible in case you cannot find the professionals.

After going through the 3-step process, you might be thinking that now you have a good understanding of the situation and that you are prepared for the meeting, right?

Not exactly …

In every negotiation, you will have at least one counterpart and it is extremely important that you also consider the options that the other side might have. Learning more about those options will help you to be better prepared for the negotiation rounds.

So, going back to the example …

What are the stakeholder potential options if you cannot get the full team and meet the deadline? Listen patiently to your justifications? Escalate to your manager? Remove you from the project?

It is time for you to do a second analysis, now based on the actions that your stakeholder might take if you cannot achieve the deadline. Again, for each option you have to analyze pros and cons in a set of variables … and look for the option that seems best for the stakeholder in case you cannot find the professionals.

After investing some time on this, you finalized your analysis and now you must be feeling that you are really ready for the meeting because you have a way better understanding of both sides' perspective, correct?

Not exactly. There is still a last step …

You must perform a third round of analysis, now taking in consideration all the data together, crossing the options, the scenarios, the possibilities. Remember, processing all this information can take a while …

By the time you finish it, you should be able to narrow down:

  • What are the most likely outcomes;

  • What options might be reasonable to you;

  • What options are not acceptable to you.

Use this final information to guide your negotiation strategy and you will definitely increase your chances of achieving your desired outcome during the negotiations with your stakeholder!

Ok, now you are ready! Just keep in mind that your stakeholder might know about BATNA too …

There is no magical answer or victory guaranteed when you use BATNA but like most things in life, the more your practice, the merrier you get. Of course there are other dozens of tools that you can use in a negotiation process, but I find BATNA a very simple and powerful one and if you try it once, you may like it as well!

***P.S.: In negotiation classes you will probably find other concepts also associated with BATNA, like EATNA (Estimated Alternatives To a Negotiated Agreement) and ZOPA (Zone of Possible Agreement) but due to time constraints, I focused just on BATNA's basic concept. ***


If you would like to work on Zalando's most critical projects and use your excellent planning and negotiation skills, consider joining the Global PMO team.

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