by James K. Sebenius
Harvard Business School
Roger Fisher, who died in 2012, enjoyed a remarkable career that modeled one way that an academic, especially in a professional school such as law or business, could make a significant, positive, and lasting difference in the world. Distinctive aspects of his career included deep engagement with the world of practice, combination of experience with disciplinary insight to generate practically valuable intellectual capital, research output that constituted a decades-long project rather than a series of one-off contributions, constant mentoring and co-authorship with younger colleagues, distillation of advice into accessible and memorable forms, and investment in an institutional legacy. Beyond these aspects, which I elaborated in a companion article in the Harvard Law Review (2013), the present article mainly evaluates Roger Fisher’s core contributions to the content or substance of negotiation research, theory, teaching, and practice. The discussion is organized around five thematic prescriptions: 1) focus on the other party’s decisions in order to craft a «yesable proposition»; 2) make the full set of underlying «interests» (versus bargaining positions) central; 3) generate fresh, mutually beneficial ideas; 4) pay attention to BATNAs (Best Alternatives To a Negotiated Agreement); and 5) use «objective criteria» to transform negotiations from a test of wills to a search for fairness principles. Fisher did not create knowledge of the deductive, experimental kind most common in social science research. Yet Roger and his colleagues developed frameworks of aphorisms that, on average, respond to widely felt practitioner needs and systematically direct negotiators’ focus to aspects of the situation that reliably generate helpful prescriptions. Left to others were careful assessments of the conditions under which his advice applied—and did not. While Fisher’s writings are open to various intellectual and practical challenges, it has stimulated much work by other researchers. The memorable propositions that he formulated have probably done more than any other academic to transform views of negotiation toward an interest-based, joint problem-solving conception.