August 29, 2012

News & Opinion: Roger Fisher, Getting to Yes from 1922 to 2012

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 7:54 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

There is a strong trend towards hyperbole in business books these days. Perhaps because everything around us seems to be changing so quickly, every idea is put in the context of how it will change the world. Do you want to build a strong and sustainable company, become a better manager, maybe work more efficiently and provide your employees and customers with tools and services that will improve their daily experience with you? You're changing the world!

But maybe it's not such a stretch. When Stephen Covey passed away last month, I wrote here that:

A lot of business books can improve your career or help you change your business. Stephen Covey’s will change your life. It has changed the world, individual reader by individual reader.
And I stand by that. Covey's modestly titled 7 Habits of Highly Effective People highly affected a lot of people, selling more than 25 million copies in almost 40 languages. It is always sad when someone passes from the world, but in cases like Covey's, we can at least take consolation that his work lives on not only in words on a page, but in the daily lives of so many individuals.

The same can be said of Roger D. Fisher, who passed away over the weekend. His international bestseller, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, has also sold millions of copies and been translated into 36 languages, touching lives all over the world, but his efforts extend beyond that. Even before he released his book, and well after he did so, he set the negotiating table for some of the greatest agreements of the last century.

From Leslie Kaufman's account of Fisher's life in The New York Times:

Professor Fisher is credited with helping initiate the summit meeting between the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1985, convincing Reagan staff members that just meeting to brainstorm and build relations was more important than settling a specific agenda.

In 1979, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance went to Professor Fisher’s house on Martha’s Vineyard before the meeting at Camp David that would lead to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Professor Fisher suggested to Mr. Vance the “single negotiating text” method that was used to bring the parties together, said Bruce M. Patton, who wrote Getting to Yes with Professor Fisher and worked on many diplomatic projects with him. The strategy involved having President Jimmy Carter alone be responsible for writing solutions and letting the other leaders shape the treaty through a back-and-forth critiquing process.

In 1991 in South Africa, Professor Fisher and former students led workshops with both the Afrikaner cabinet and the African National Congress negotiating committee leading into talks to end apartheid and to establish a new constitution.

His upbeat approach to some of the world’s most intractable problems led some critics to assert that he was unrealistic. But Mr. Patton said Professor Fisher recognized and relished the “complexity and irrationality” of the situations he addressed.

Ms. Kaufman ended her obituary of Fisher in The Times by sharing this scene:
His family recalled that when Professor Fisher celebrated his 80th birthday, his colleague John Kenneth Galbraith toasted him by saying, “Whenever I thought, ‘Someone should do something about this,’ it eased my conscience to learn that Roger was already working on it.”
Galbraith himself passed away years ago, but if he were alive today hopefully his conscience could still take ease knowing that his friend left us a tool that can be used to continue his mission of Getting to Yes. Heaven knows we can use it.

And, hopefully, more authors working today will follow his example and, more than simply putting pen to paper, go out and find ways to put their ideas to work in this often complex and irrational world and see if they can change it for the better.