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The fruit of compromise
Published on Friday, 16 Dec 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung
Book: The 3rd Alternative
Author: Stephen R. Covey
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

All hail the king of motivational theory and practice, and reigning monarch of corporate leadership coaching. Stephen R. Covey is approaching the big eight-O now, but the acuity of his mind is as impressive as ever, on the evidence of The 3rd Alternative.

The multimillion-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - which in 1989 kick started the genre - is acknowledged by many, including this reviewer, as one of the most influential business texts of the 20th century.

His publisher has presented The 3rd Alternative as a wholly fresh work. But this is slightly misleading. What this is, in actuality, is a well-penned and timely rehash of the book that made his name, thanks to its ground-breaking focus on the importance of synergy, and on the win-win paradigm.

Is this a bad thing? No. If you have read The 7 Habits (which may now be slightly dated), you might find The 3rd Alternative underwhelming. If you haven't, it would behove you to go straight to this, which has similar content and almost identical messages, but is written from a 21st-century perspective.

The last person to widely use the term the "Third Alternative" as an approach to living was the late Muammar Gaddafi, whose Green Book expounded an alternative to communism and capitalism.

Covey is a nard-boiled capitalist, and a Mormon - so there's an element of religiosity in his work, but his grasp of economics is vastly superior to that of the late Libyan dictator's.

The 3rd Alternative presents productive approaches to conflict resolution and creative problem solving. In these pages, Covey unveils a powerful methodology that he claims can resolve thorny professional and personal conflicts, and yield solutions to apparently intractable challenges.

In any conflict, the first alternative is "my way" and the second, is "your way". The fight usually rages over the question of whose way is "better". There are numerous methods of "conflict resolution," but most involve grudging compromise

The 3rd Alternative goes further - it's about creating, what Covey terms, "a new and improved reality". A departure from the usual strategies, this book illuminates a more productive mind-set - one helpful to anyone seeking urgent solutions in their professional or personal lives.

Covey amplifies his message by means of wide-ranging examples of "third alternative thinkers". There's the local police force that transformed a crime-plagued community by casting off its entrenched "them against us" mentality.

Another example tells the tale of a father who, during the course of one extraordinary evening, rescued his daughter from years of clinical depression. Then there's the judge who brought a swift and peaceful end to an environmental lawsuit without stepping into a courtroom.

Like many of the titles examined in this column, The 3rd Alternative is an America-centric text, but there's a generation of budding Stephen R. Coveys in this part of the world.

But back to the man who started it all. Speaking to the press recently, about his new release, Covey explained: "Most negotiators are trying to get their way. Through rounds of haggling, they usually arrive at a compromise, in which both sides concede something to get an agreement."

By contrast, a "Third Alternative" requires no concessions at all - because it's truly a better deal for everyone. "You get to it not by haggling, but by asking, `Would you be willing to go for a Third Alternative that is better than what either of us has in mind?' "

And that's the message in a nutshell. Of course, win-win compromise is a very tough nut to crack for those in the corporate community - and compromising with grace, more so. The 3rd Alternative provides a whole toolbox of nutcrackers. 

Clearly, Covey is doing something right as he has been - for the past 20 years.