Huntsman Alumni Magazine

Fall 2011

The 3rd Alternative

By Steve Eaton

In February 2010, Stephen R. Covey became the first Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Chair in Leadership. In his role as a research  professor he continues to write and influence leaders around the world who want to center their lives on timeless principles and synergistic practices.

It would be easy to argue that the world could use a little dose of Stephen R. Covey, the Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Chair
in Leadership.

One need not search the news too deeply to find evidence of clashing ideologies, frustrated activists, and unsatisfying compromises. When so many issues are resolved by debates and poll numbers, and are tracked as wins and losses, many people are interested in finding a better way.

Help may still be a few weeks away, when Dr. Covey’s latest book, The Third Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems, hits the shelves. And while it’s unlikely that the world will immediately shift gears because of a new book, one could argue that the principles in Dr. Covey’s book, if applied, could change the game. In the book, which explores the benefits of Dr. Covey’s version of synergy, he offers some ideas that could benefit anyone who feels they have been locked in a no-win situation where conflicting views seemed destined to clash forever.

The Huntsman Alumni Magazine was offered an early look at the book. On the surface, it may seem to be simply about how to compromise more effectively, but there’s much more there. Rather than advising people to find common ground, Dr. Covey suggests people can find new territory—a place where a third alternative can be discovered. He says true synergy is not about compromise that creates lose-lose agreements, but it is about finding ways to create new solutions that are far better than either side’s proposal alone.

Professor Covey says that very few people understand true synergy, and yet he describes this concept as “the highest and most important insight I have learned from studying those people who lead truly effective lives.”

In the book, Dr. Covey gives an example of a leader who helped an employee find a third-alternative solution. The worker took a job at a lower salary than he had hoped for just to get in the door. He soon discovered his new wages were not enough, and his family was struggling to make ends meet. He decided to approach his boss, and found her open and willing to listen to his concerns.

“She just listened, and I talked quite a lot about what I’d been doing for the firm. She asked me what I thought about the company, its customers, its products. It was odd. We had this long conversation that I thought was going to be about my pay, but instead it was about me — how I was doing, what I thought, what I’d learned in my few months at the company. “Then she asked me about a certain customer I’d been working with. She wanted to know my ideas for expanding our business with that client, and I actually did have some thoughts that I shared.

“A couple days later, she invited me back into her office. Three or four other people joined us, and she had put up on a whiteboard my ideas for this client. We had quite the discussion, and a lot more discussions after that. I was excited. Finally, they offered me an expanded job with higher pay and responsibility for a new level of service to this important client.”

Dr. Covey cites a number of other examples where third alternative thinking helped people solve vexing problems. He said in 1992 a new type of cholera raged through India. Politicians and health workers fought over the expense and difficulty of purifying water in the hardest-hit areas of the country. An Indian scientist, Ashok Gadgil, however, looked at the problem in a new way and developed a process to use ultraviolet radiation to destroy bacteria in the water. He invented an ultraviolet water purifier that can run off a car battery and decontaminate a ton of water for about half a cent.  Covey suggests a four-step process to finding synergistic solutions.

1. Ask the people involved if they are willing to go for a solution that is better than what either side has come up with before.

2. Define success. “The idea is to come up with a clear vision of the job to be done, a list of criteria for a successful outcome that would delight us both — criteria that would move beyond our entrenched demands.”

3. Brainstorm and search for new solutions. Turn your thinking upside down and experiment with radical possibilities.

4. Keep working at it until you reach “synergy.” Dr. Covey says that you can tell when that happens because there is a “burst of
creative dynamism” and excitement in the room. At that point hesitation and conflict are gone.

Dr. Covey wrote the internationally best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that was recently named as one of the 25 “most influential business management books” by TIME Magazine. In his new book he is offering additional insight aimed at helping people better understand the basic principles he taught in his first book, especially those directly relating to finding synergistic solutions.

Dr. Covey has never been one to propose shortcuts to better character or manipulative management techniques. In his book he warns that it takes patience and persistence to harness the benefits of true synergy.

"In The 7 Habits, I was able to deal with this principle in only a general way, but in this book, I invite you to explore it with me much more broadly and deeply,” he writes. “If you pay the price to truly understand it, you’ll never think the same way again. You’ll find yourself approaching your most difficult challenges in life in an entirely new, exponentially more effective way.”