A Conversation with the Founders of PON

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A Conversation with the Founders of the Program on Negotiation
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Recently, the scholars of negotiation, mediation, and decision analysis who founded the Program on Negotiation gathered at PON to discuss the early days of the Program and the field they helped pioneer. Present were Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton, Howard Raiffa, Frank E.A. Sander, Lawrence Susskind, James Sebenius, and William Ury. A video of this conversation is available here in streaming format. A brief introduction to PON is given at the beginning of the video.

PON Managing Director Susan Hackley wrote the following article describing this unique event. Published originally in the September 2003 Newsletter of the New England Chapter of the Association for Conflict Resolution (www.neacr.org), it appears here with slight modifications.

Twenty years at the Program on Negotiation:

“The best advice you could give both sides.”
by Susan Hackley

Today the field of negotiation is firmly established, with negotiation courses offered at most universities, with mediation and other participatory processes widely accepted, and with a popular understanding of the concept of principled negotiation. It can be easy to forget how relatively new this field is.

The Program on Negotiation is the oldest and largest teaching and research center dedicated to negotiation, and its founders are among the true pioneers in the field. Several months ago, these founders gathered to reflect on the Program’s beginnings and on their own journeys as leaders in a field they helped to create.

Looking back 20 years were: Roger Fisher, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Law School, first Chair of PON’s Steering Committee; Bruce Patton, a founding partner of Vantage Partners, LLC, and a director of Conflict Management, Inc.; Howard Raiffa, Professor Emeritus of Managerial Economics at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government; Frank E.A. Sander, Professor at Harvard Law School; James Sebenius, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School; and Lawrence Susskind, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at MIT, and William Ury, Director of the Global Negotiation Project.

Roger Fisher told the group that he had decided back then to make it his mission to “improve the way people deal with their conflicts,” and as a result he began to organize seminars where people who were quarreling would come in and tell their story. Then he and others would see if they had something useful to say, while at the same time trying to learn from the problem.

“We started with a practical problem, often a labor dispute,” recalled Bill Ury, “and said, OK, what advice would you give? And there was this sudden awareness among us that — working from the law, working from environmental or public disputes, working from business or psychology or anthropology or whatever — that somehow there was a theme or strand that went across all these different disciplines.”

Larry Susskind added, “What each of us said made sense, even though it had nothing to do with what each of us individually might have thought to say, and so we realized, “Hey, there’s something here that we all share!”

As they began to distill the advice they were developing collaboratively, they made an important shift, as Roger Fisher described it, from the old method where you were taught “how to bluff, how to mislead, how to pad your demand and how to be tough. We changed it from one-sided advice to the best advice we could give both sides.”

Howard Raiffa remembered his science colleagues asking how he could connect with Roger Fisher, when they came from such different disciplines. “There was more commonality than I would have thought,” Howard said. “We both looked for the essence of the problem, like the essential idea of ‘joint gains’.”

As academics, they were unusual in that they not only wanted to learn from practice, they wanted to be engaged in practice, and that led them to think about what theory would be most useful to practitioners.

“It’s a tough tension to manage academically,” remarked Jim Sebenius. “The test is: do you have something that is useful in practice, intellectually consistent, and deep? Those are pretty stern tests. But what I always admired about this group is that they were not going to retreat behind ‘this is high theory; nobody else can understand it.'”

They worked to develop their negotiation advice, trying, as Bruce Patton described it, to make it “simple without making it uselessly simplistic. You had to understand it pretty darn well to figure out what are the core variables.”

Roger Fisher and Bill Ury, with Bruce Patton, wrote the book, Getting to Yes, which gave pithy and memorable advice that has stood the test of time remarkably well. Twenty years after its publication, Getting to Yes continues to sell some three thousand copies a week.

As Howard Raiffa noted, “Having a bestseller is a good way of launching a field.” Concepts developed in Getting to Yes, such as focusing on interests not positions, separating the people from the problem, and determining one’s BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) became the lingua franca of negotiation.

Two other seminal works in the field were published around that time: The Art & Science of Negotiation by Howard Raiffa and The Manager as Negotiator by David A. Lax and James K. Sebenius. With the books and the seminars and the other intellectual activities percolating, they started getting a lot of phone calls, and Bruce Patton recalled them thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had someone to answer these phone calls? And we had the Dispute Resolution Program and the Negotiation Roundtable and other programs up and running, and so we had discussions about how to coordinate these programs.”

That was the start of the Program on Negotiation, an administrative umbrella for the various new activities and projects that quickly expanded to include the Negotiation Journal, a highly popular executive education seminar program, the Clearinghouse (a research center for negotiation education), a research fellows and visiting scholars program, and many other enterprises.

The founders reflected on the choice of the word “negotiation,” noting that it had a serendipitous expansiveness that allowed it to open into different fields. As Bill Ury noted, “Just the naming of something seems to have an enormous impact on where you end up spreading,” and negotiation has continued to be relevant to a wide range of disciplines.

Larry Susskind remarked that he was recently asked to be part of a new intellectual collaborative at MIT, and he suggested to those founders that they learn from the PON model. “You need a group of people who continue to interact and who are curious enough to want to hear what the others are doing. If you tell them to go off and do their thing and submit something in writing, you won’t get the intellectual vitality that comes from the constant interaction.”

When asked what PON had meant to each of them personally, Frank Sander responded, “I’ve found PON a tremendously enriching place. There’s a lot of stimulation from people with different perspectives worrying about the same problems.”

Twenty years after launching the program, all of the founders continue to be closely involved both collectively and as individuals contributing to the field of negotiation. New faculty, researchers, students and practitioners come along to enrich and energize the program, which continues its commitment to helping discover better ways to negotiate, solve problems, and prevent, manage and resolve conflict.

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