Your Zero Sum Thinking Sucks


You know I think you should design opinionated products, and that I'm opinionated. But it's not often that I write a post that declares “______ sucks!”

Zero Sum Thinking Defined

So let's start with a definition, so we're talking about the same thing. When you and I negotiate we're both looking for things. Zero sum thinking, in the simplest form, requires that one of us win while one of us loses. If we're going to share a pie, it means we each fight to get more pieces of pie.

So you can imagine why I hate zero sum thinking in any realm. When you and I negotiate there are always things we're interested in that cost the other party very little. Let's look at a simple example.

A Zero Sum Thinking Example

You contact me to ask for some help with a web site. You need it done late night, emergency, right now. Normally this would trigger a rate increase from my side. But your non-profit client doesn't have tons of money and you've already been paid all that they have. Zero sum thinking has me pushing the rate increase (to win) and you having to pay out of your own pocket (to lose).

Making the Pie Larger

But I know something about you that normally wouldn't play into negotiations. I know you sail regularly (the benefits of being friends on social media outlets). And my family loves sailing. So it would be a big treat to take my family out on the water.

What value do I have on being the “family hero?” It's immeasurable. So maybe I ask about your access to boats – which doesn't cost you anything. Is it worth doing a quick job with the benefit of sailing? Sure!

In negotiating this way, we've not been fighting over the pieces of our pie. Instead, we've been making the pie larger.

So why the rant?

This isn't because you asked me to help you with a web site. Let's be clear.

Today, when coaching someone, I had to write them the words, “If you have to choose between being professional and being a team player you're already in a bad spot.

For context, I was coaching someone who was doing contract negotiation, and that's where you often see zero sum thinking. You get a mentality that creates situations where you'll often hear:

  • Do this job at a discount and win future opportunities
  • We need your lower rate so we can show you're the right option
  • Do this project fixed bid, and then we can talk hourly rates

All of these situations are often suggested under the guise of “being a team player.” But if being a team player is at odds with being a professional, you know you're in a very bad place already.

I don't do business with Zero Sum Thinkers

So what can you do? My suggestion, to my client, and to you, will always be the same.

Have an honest and healthy conversation about the situation.

If this works, you're on your way to developing a healthy relationship with a great long-term client/partner. But if they don't care about  anything other than winning, my red flags go up. Way up.

I know what you're going to say – “I can't afford to walk away.”  I hear you. But the truth is that you really can't afford to stay.

When you stay, you'll end up doing more and more for less and less. And the result will be that you're doing things for free – which is what you were worried about when I told you to walk away.

So if you're not going to make money – make sure you're not making money the easy way: by doing nothing. Because if you're not making money while doing a lot of work, you're doing it wrong.

You agree? Disagree? Let me know. Rant over.