Collaboration is the New Competition: Isn’t It?

On the one hand:

  • This year a main theme of the Davos conference, where the worlds elites meet, was collaboration;
  • The buzz du jour—actually, for quite a few jours now—has been networking;

And yet—the lesson doesn’t seem learned just yet. In fact, business is positively schizophrenic these days. Three examples:

1. In Fortune’s March 17 issue, A.G. Lafley, CEO of P&G, talks about the major change he implemented. At one point he says, “I encouraged [managers] to compete like hell externally but to collaborate like family internally.”

A few paragraphs later, he says “we began to seek out innovation. Innovation is all about connections, so we get everyone we can involved: P&Gers past and present, customers, suppliers, even competitors.”

So, which is it? Do you compete with your competitors, or collaborate with them? Yes.

2. I wanted to hire my good friend John, a lawyer, to do some legal work for me. I told him I wanted him to be practical, not theoretical—and I needed good value for money. He replied, “I will focus on practical, and will be careful with funds, while also balancing the need to protect myself.”

Protect yourself? From whom, John? I’m the only threat he can possibly be talking about. So, what am I? A client, or a competitor?

3. The Wise Marketer , a group that focuses on loyalty programs, says in its newsletter of March 6:

“…by retaining 5% more of its customers, a company can almost double its profits… In other words, it pays to engender loyalty. So that’s WHY we need loyalty programmes – or more specifically, the data that we can gather from them."

Their words, not mine: the reason we have loyalty programs is for us to make more money. Loyalty—as in semper fi, or ’til death do us part—is engendered by business in order to make money—not for its own sake. Means, not ends.

Like Hugh Lofting’s Pushmi-pullyu, business has become of two minds.

On the one hand, the reigning strategist of our time, Michael Porter, teaches that business is about competition, that there are Five Forces of Competiton, and that two of them are about a company’s rivalry with customers and with suppliers.

By this view, the natural state of business affairs is a Hobbesian state of nature, where we fight with others in our supply chain. Made a lot of sense 20-30 years ago. So Detroit competed with its union, its dealers, and its suppliers.

Meanwhile, Toyota collaborated with its suppliers, and today enjoys a huge cost advantage because of it.

On the other hand, in a world where increasingly you have to get world class at one thing and outsource the rest, you had better get really good at collaborating with your supply chain—not suing them and having them sign NDAs. Collaboration is the new competition.

What is happening here, Mr. Jones, is that a Brave New World is colliding with a rapidly obsolescing business ideology. As always happens, the New World will eventually win. The only question is, how much damage will be sustained along the way. Because old ideologies die slowly, like old ideologues.

Business will have to re-learn the lesson of the human race. Survival does not depend on Darwinian strength—it depends on co-existence, co-location, collaboration. Darwin himself stated, if I’m not wrong, that survival depended more on adaptation than on overcoming.

We’re going to have to root out an awful lot of knee-jerk beliefs and behaviors based on the old-think of competition, in order to get to a more universally efficient and value-producing world of collaboration. It’s not so much an issue of moral illness, as it is of mental illness. We need to think anew, and aright.

Oh, and I’m still hiring John. It was his training, not his heart, doing that bad talking. It’s his heart I trust.