Breakthrough International Negotiation

By — on / News, Reviews of Books

Playing for high stakes — in politics, business or everyday life — demands “breakthrough” negotiation, according to Michael Watkins, professor at the Harvard Business School, and Susan Rosegrant of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Their new book, Breakthrough International Negotiation: How Great Negotiators Transformed The World’s Toughest Post-Cold War Conflicts (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001; $39.95), presents a new framework for negotiation by dissecting the most complex acts of diplomacy in recent history.

The book is the first title to be published in a new conflict resolution book series jointly sponsored by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and Jossey-Bass.

Focusing on the “hot spots” of the post-Cold War era — Korea, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and Bosnia — Watkins and Rosegrant explore the ways in which diplomatic negotiators overcome deeply entrenched conflict and acrimony to achieve hard-won agreements. One of the book’s aims is to take readers behind the scenes to learn how world-class negotiators shape the existing world order.

In the process, the authors refute the notion that great negotiators are born and not made. “Expert negotiators may possess a certain degree of charisma and persuasiveness,” says Watkins, “but those attributes alone are hardly enough to achieve what Holbrooke did in Bosnia or what Gallucci did in Korea.”

A Set of Negotiation Skills

From in-depth interviews with diplomats and experts on international affairs — including James Baker, Dick Cheney and Shimon Peres — the authors establish that breakthrough negotiators are distinguished by their ability to assess complex situations and come up with effective counter-strategies. “What we learned in the course of our interviews is that negotiation is a skill — or rather, a set of skills,” says Watkins, “and skills by their very nature must be learned.

“Too many people mistake negotiation for a grab bag of tactical tricks and ploys, bluffs and psych-outs,” adds Watkins. “Effective negotiation is actually a subtle and complicated process of reconciling disparate factors and staying tuned to shifting agendas.”

By tracing the decisions and actions of expert negotiators who have faced challenges that demanded new ways of thinking, the authors craft what they define as “breakthrough negotiation,” an approach that allows the reader to learn how to assess and resolve difficult situations successfully. “The ultimate goal of learning breakthrough negotiation is to be an architect of structure and process and not a passive participant in situations defined by others,” says Rosegrant. “The payoff is the ability to re-configure any landscape in ways that make agreement possible that wasn’t possible before.”

To be a breakthrough negotiator, experience helps, the authors say, but relying upon experience alone carries significant risk of failure. Watkins and Rosegrant demonstrate that the best way to develop as a negotiator is to study a range of scenarios and carefully absorb the lessons. “Negotiators who learn from experience alone are likely to develop styles that work well in some situations but not in others,” Watkins explains.

The authors provide a practical framework, in conjunction with several different cases of complex negotiation, that offers the reader an opportunity to size up numerous situations quickly. “Experts manage complexity better than novices because they are better at pattern recognition, mental simulation, parallel management and reflection-in-action,” says Watkins. “In our book, we show the reader how to master these concepts without having to participate in as many diverse situations.”

Outline of the Book

Core concepts of breakthrough negotiation are illustrated in Part I of the book, which analyzes the high-stakes arbitration between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear weapons program. The first eight chapters juxtapose author commentary with a detailed account of the negotiations that were conducted by both the Bush and Clinton administrations. “A lot was at stake over the U.S./Korea showdown,” says Watkins. “If it became evident that North Korea had nuclear weapons, it might well have sparked an arms race in Asia.”

The authors relate each step of the negotiations, pausing to ask readers to consider factors that were instrumental to success. Who are the parties and what are their interests? Who is controlling the pace? What factors led parties to the negotiating table? By doing so, the authors reveal ways to evaluate proceedings with a critical eye, the first step toward gaining control of a situation.

“Containing North Korea’s nuclear program is an excellent example of how to conduct breakthrough negotiation,” Watkins explains. “The U.S. team was able to bridge internal decision-making and external negotiation, reconcile divergent interests and lead with credibility and skill rather than authority. The situation was a major test of both the Bush and Clinton administrations with lessons that President George W. Bush would be well-advised to heed.”

According to Watkins and Rosegrant, the success of the U.S. illustrates the four core concepts of breakthrough negotiation:

Diagnosing structure: assessing the architecture of the situation and identifying the parties to the negotiation, the issue-agenda and action-forcing events.
Identifying barriers to agreement: pinpointing structural, strategic, psychological and institutional barriers that prevent success.
Managing conflict: avoiding escalation, defusing tensions and involving third parties to help move the process forward.
Building momentum: formulating strategies for learning, shaping the structure and crafting creative deals in order to build momentum toward favorable agreement.

Part II of the book presents and analyzes the Bush Administration’s efforts to build a coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait; international efforts to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the Middle East with the signing of the Oslo Accord; and Richard Holbrooke’s dramatic success in ending the war in Bosnia. The chapters explore approaches to transforming the dynamics of conflicts, building coalitions and taking a leadership role in negotiation.

The authors draw upon the world of diplomacy, but are convinced that the ideas and approaches found in the book can be applied to any scenario requiring negotiation, including government, business and even private life. The most evident arena, Watkins points out, is the boardroom. “Brokering a deal requires the same ability to assess complex situations and craft breakthrough strategies as brokering a peace agreement,” he says. “Leaders of companies and leaders of countries must possess many of the same skills.”

Background of the Authors

Watkins founded the field of corporate diplomacy at Harvard and currently teaches a second-year course on the subject. “Corporate leaders have to deal with many different groups: unions, trade associations, national governments, customers, suppliers, international trade organizations and lobbying groups,” Watkins explains. “Their ability to negotiate and build coalitions with these groups is crucial.”

Top business schools acknowledge Watkins’ reasoning by making negotiation a required part of their curriculum. “The factors that complicate diplomatic negotiations — many influential parties, complex sets of issues, pre-existing animosities, contentious internal decision-making — often arise in business,” says Watkins. “For students studying business, law or public policy, negotiation is a skill they should have well in hand before entering the working world.”

“My research on case studies has shown me that there are at least two sides to every story and that public policy decisions — even those that appear obvious on the surface-are rarely black and white,” Rosegrant adds. “Navigating the ambiguities of a specific situation isn’t intuitive; it requires learning models of process. Our approach provides a framework for managing the fluid and intricate interactions that characterize almost all complex negotiations.”

Rosegrant, a former journalist whose credentials include stints with the Associated Press and Business Week, is now with the Kennedy School of Government Case Program. Her collaboration with Watkins began in the mid-1990s when she began writing case studies for the Harvard professor. A series on international negotiations evolved into a more long-term project as the case studies became a critical piece of Watkins’ curriculum. From Rosegrant’s research, Watkins developed the conceptual framework and analysis that eventually led to Breakthrough International Negotiation. “We decided to write a book in order to share the cases and the lessons they illustrated with a broader audience,” says Rosegrant.

In addition to teaching the required course in negotiation at the Harvard Business School since 1997, Watkins has built windmills for a power utility, studied ways to improve the product design process in the auto industry and implemented organizational change in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Watkins’ approach to analyzing complex negotiations as dynamic systems grew directly out of his early training as an engineer.

What all this varied experience has in common, says Watkins, “are coalition building and complex negotiation.” He believes that anyone who can grasp the basic structure of a situation possesses a strong antidote to manipulation and is in a powerful position to resolve complex disputes.

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