The 3rd Alternative
By Stephen R. Covey
(Free Press, 480 pages, $29.99)
Most conflicts are viewed as having two sides. It’s my team versus your team, or my idea versus your idea. But best-selling author Stephen R. Covey believes that’s a self-defeating and destructive attitude.
Instead, we have to be open to another, third alternative. Not a compromise, but a whole new approach that combines the best of both sides.
That is what Mahatma Gandhi did when he was subjected to racism after arriving in South Africa. He instinctively wanted to respond to that racism with eye-for-eye justice that would resolve his anger. Instead he developed a third alternative – creative non-violence. It is how W. Edwards Deming responded to industrialists who insisted that you could have high quality or low costs, but not both. The American statistician developed the ideas behind the total quality movement, which showed you can improve quality and lower costs at the same time.
And it is how an unnamed manager described in Mr. Covey’s new book, The 3rd Alternative, responded when a new employee realized that the salary he had accepted in taking the job was too low for his struggling family. The manager and employee didn’t know each other well, and when she heard his request for an increase, she pressed him to tell her more.
Instead of a conversation he feared about pay, it turned into a long chat about himself – how he was doing, what he thought, and what he had learned in his few months at the company. When she asked how they might expand business with one of their top customers, his ideas led to a meeting with others, and eventually an expanded job for him with higher pay and responsibility for a new level of service for that customer. Rather than the binary thinking he expected – him asking for a pay raise, and his manager insisting the company couldn’t afford it – the manager developed a third alternative that benefited the employee, company, and a key client.
The search for the third alternative, Mr. Covey says, begins with a question: “Maybe we can come up with a better solution than either of us had in mind. Would you be willing to look for a third alternative we haven’t even thought of yet?”
He calls the process synergy, though he recognizes that word has a bad name these days after so many large corporations took over other companies claiming that synergy would occur, though it never turned out that way. He says those ventures were driven by hubris, not synergy: “Synergy is what happens when one plus one equals 10 or 100 or even 1,000. It’s the mighty result when two or more respectful human beings determine together to go beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge.”
He outlines four steps to take:
Ask the third alternative question
When you suggest seeking a new solution better than anything on the table, he argues that you are disarming defensiveness because you are not asking the other person to give up his or her position or seek a compromise. You should make this clear: “I’m not asking you to compromise. I’m asking you if you are willing to work with me to create something better than you or I had in mind. It doesn’t exist yet. We’ll create it together.”
Define criteria of success
Now ask, “What would better look like?” You need a list of the successful outcomes that would delight both parties. These criteria will move beyond your individual demands. Enlist the help of others, if you can. “The mantra of synergy is this: As many ideas from as many people as possible as early as possible,” Mr. Covey says.
Create the third alternative
Put the criteria on the wall, and start experimenting with ideas that will meet them. Create prototypes, brainstorm new frameworks, turn your thinking upside down – break out of your preconceived notions to come up with something that will startle you both and satisfy your joint needs. Create an environment where this kind of adventurous, open-ended thinking can take place, stretching beyond traditional brainstorming. “Often the most interesting third alternatives happen when people make odd, unexpected connections,” he notes.
Arrive at synergy
You’ll know you have reached synergy by the excitement in the room. The hesitation and conflict are gone. A creative answer has been found that everyone can embrace.
Mr. Covey mentioned this idea in his last, sprawling book, The Eighth Habit, and I found it the best gem he offered then. It’s nice to see him elaborate, although he does have a tendency in the opening chapters to again wander beyond my tolerance level. But over all, The 3rd Alternative is interesting and useful, with plenty of helpful examples as he carries the notion into the workplace, and then home, school, the law, and the world.
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