Unless you happened to be reading the NY Times obituary columns this week, you wouldn’t have noticed that one of the great supply chain innovators of the 20th century, Gerard I. Nierenberg, passed away this week. Nierenberg, a lawyer whose frustration with the adversarial nature of legal disputes led him to develop methods of negotiating that he promoted in training seminars and popular books, including “The Art of Negotiating” and “How to Read a Person Like a Book,” died on Wednesday in Manhattan at the ripe old age of 89.
The fact that a lawyer was the one to develop approaches that could avoid contractual disputes, which are so common in today’s litigative environment, is an ultimate testimony to how far we have wandered away from the concept of collaboration relationships. What is so unique about Nierenberg was his views that negotiation was not about “tactics” (like so many negotiation seminars advertise), but about creation of mutual value. His specific message was that in a successful negotiation, “everyone wins”.
As noted in the Times, Nierenberg had been running a real estate law practice in New York in the early 1960s when he came to the conclusion that he and many other people spent an enormous amount of time negotiating at work and at home and yet had no formal training in how to do it. Too often, he found, negotiating meant trying to win at all costs.
“If you’re going to try to make everyone else lose who plays with you, and you think life’s a game, how far do you think you’re going to get in life?” he said in an interview in 1983. “Everyone’s going to try to beat you. And, boy, that makes a hell of a life.” He wrote a book on the subject, and started the Negotiation Institute that is now run by his Son George. (I am working with George and the Negotiation Institute also promoting concepts on supply chain collaboration).
What is also so interesting about Nierenberg is the thinking behind what makes negotiation work, which he embodied in his book. Much of his thinking on negotiating was rooted in his interest in general semantics, a field within linguistics that views words as labels that distract attention from the things they represent. He was interested in “how we know what we know” and how that “locks us into self-limiting the kinds of choices we can make.”
How many of the contractual supply chain disputes that we hear about are rooted in the limiting terminology of “indemnification” and “limits of liability”, which ultimately locks buyers and sellers and customers into defeatist, obstructive behaviors that prevent the creation of value? How much of negotiation is about “winning”, versus really identifying mutual risks and rewards that can be identified, shared, and discussed. How much of contract management is about legal positioning, versus problem-solving?
I think Gerard was probably a fair negotiator. As his wife Juliet noted to the Times, “I could always rely on reminding him, or he would remind me, about the principles of negotiation.”