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Competing With Colleagues

Co-opetition. Have you heard the term tossed around? It’s one that I learned earlier on in my career and has always stayed with me. A catchy phrase, to be sure; but how do you do it?

When I wrote The Trusted Advisor with David Maister and Rob Galford, it became reasonably successful within several months. (Amazingly,16 years later, it still ranks #5 in Consulting under Small Business and Entrepreneurship.)

With its success came a happy problem: how to parcel out the leads between the three of us? Let me be clear, the book wasn’t drowning us in leads; any one of the three of us could have happily fielded all inquiries. And while we wanted to be fair to each other, we were also all of us very clearly in competition with each other.

So the question: how do you compete with colleagues?

Competing with Colleagues

What if one of us got a lead based on the book? Did we have any obligation to pass it along to the other two? If so, how?  Should we establish a quota system, whereby each of us would get every third lead?

Should we let the market dictate things, and let whomever the client had reached out to handle the response? What if the client had written to all three of us?  Should we all respond confidentially, or in some sense share our responses?

The problem was not unique to us, though it seemed so at the time.  You may face a similar problem within your organization – who gets the lead? Who gets to present?

Or, you may come face to face with an  old friend who has changed uniforms and now works for a competitor. In any case, the tension is much the same – the sensation of being a colleague feels intensely in conflict with the sensation of being a competitor.

How do you resolve it?

The Solution

The answer to the problem came to us fairly quickly, on reflection, and I documented it as part of the Four Trust Principles in my later books. The answer lies in true focus on client needs.

In our case: we agreed that we should all respond similarly to all client inquiries, regardless of to whom they were addressed. In all cases, we would say words to the effect of:

The Trusted Advisor was written by the three of us. I suspect that each of us could do an excellent job in response to your query, and each of us would handle the work slightly differently. You would be best served by having discussions with each of us, and making up your mind on that basis.

We will each be candid with respect to our own strengths and weaknesses, and answer questions to the best of our ability about the others. Each of us will respect your decision, and we are each committed to you making the best decision possible for you.

The best decision for you is what all three of us seek, and each of us will do our best to help you reach it, regardless of your choice.

This solution made everything easier. It kept our relationship collegial. It removed any awkwardness about responding to clients. It removed any awkwardness that clients might experience in choosing whom to talk to.

And, of course, it resulted in the best decision for clients, as each of us have our own particular skills and drawbacks.

So what’s the answer?  Grindingly relentless focus on client service, and the willingness to pursue that logic wherever it leads.

Competing with Colleagues

When I co-wrote The Trusted Advisor with David Maister and Rob Galford a few years back, it became reasonably successful within several months. (Amazingly, it still ranks #5,252 – as of last night – on the list of all books on Amazon. That’s all books, including Harry Potter, Malcolm Gladwell, etc. I’ll take long-sellers over best-sellers any day of the week).

With its success came a happy problem: how to parcel out the leads between the three of us? Let me be clear, the book wasn’t drowning us in leads; any one of the three of us could have happily fielded all inquiries. And while we wanted to be fair to each other, we were also all of us very clearly in competition with each other.

So the question: how do you compete with colleagues?

Competing with Colleagues

What if one of us got a lead based on the book? Did we have any obligation to pass it along to the other two? If so, how?  Should we establish a quota system, whereby each of us would get every third lead?

Should we let the market dictate things, and let whomever the client had reached out to handle the response? What if the client had written to all three of us?  Should we all respond confidentially, or in some sense share our responses?

The problem was not unique to us, though it seemed so at the time.  You may face a similar problem within your organization – who gets the lead? Who gets to present?

Or, you may come face to face with an  old friend who has changed uniforms and now works for a competitor. In any case, the tension is much the same – the sensation of being a colleague feels intensely in conflict with the sensation of being a competitor.

How do you resolve it?

The Solution

The answer to the problem came to us fairly quickly, on reflection, and I documented it as part of the Four Trust Principles in my later books. The answer lies in true focus on client needs.

In our case: we agreed that we should all respond similarly to all client inquiries, regardless of to whom they were addressed. In all cases, we would say words to the effect of:

The Trusted Advisor was written by the three of us. I suspect that each of us could do an excellent job in response to your query, and each of us would handle the work slightly differently. You would be best served by having discussions with each of us, and making up your mind on that basis.

We will each be candid with respect to our own strengths and weaknesses, and answer questions to the best of our ability about the others. Each of us will respect your decision, and we are each committed to you making the best decision possible for you.

The best decision for you is what all three of us seek, and each of us will do our best to help you reach it, regardless of your choice.

This solution made everything easier. It kept our relationship collegial. It removed any awkwardness about responding to clients. It removed any awkwardness that clients might experience in choosing whom to talk to.

And, of course, it resulted in the best decision for clients, as each of us have our own particular skills and drawbacks.

So what’s the answer?  Grindingly relentless focus on client service, and the willingness to pursue that logic wherever it leads.

Escaping the Grinding Wheels of Sales

The plaintive question suddenly took me back a few decades. I remember feeling exactly as the person described it:

What am I supposed to do? On the one hand, I genuinely want to do right by my client. At the same time, my firm is depending on me to drive revenue there. They’re not asking me to do anything wrong, of course, but the pressure is there nonetheless; it’s on me to figure out how to do it, how to ring the bell. And I’ve got to make it happen; it’s my job.

I feel caught between two grinding wheels: everyone’s nice about it, but that just makes it worse.  I don’t know how to make both sides happy, and it’s just grinding me down.

Exactly. Boy do I remember that. And if you sell systems, or professional services, or complex B2B services, I bet you can relate too.

So here’s what I’ve learned that’s kept me away from the grinding wheels for a long time now.

What You Must Remember

Here’s the thing. Three things, actually.

Thing 1. You can’t make people do what they don’t want. Trying to do so just makes it worse. And much ‘selling’ rhymes with trying to do just that. (One of my favorite findings in Neil Rackham’s great work SPIN Selling is that attempts to teach ‘closing’ actually made students worse at closing).

Thing 2. If you help other people, it predisposes them to help you. And “help” comes in many flavors, including – very much including – just plain old listening. Listening to people predisposes them to listen to  you. And listening to you tends to increase the odds of their buying.

Thing 3. Principle-based behavior beats tactical behavior. If your actions are always based on short-term self-interest, others will not trust you. If your actions are based on principles, others will see it and trust you, including in the buying process.

If you accept Thing 1, you’ll lose less. If you start doing Things 2 and 3, you’ll win more.

If you think rightly about these three ideas, and act on them – you can escape that feeling of being ground down.  Here’s how.

Putting the Basic Things Together

In the happy event that your offering is better than your competitor’s, don’t blow it by over-reaching. Be calm, open, and natural. Be forthright, but confident that your offering can speak for itself.

If your offering is worse than your competitor’s, don’t blunt your sword. Admit it. Do what you can to help your client, including – yes, I’m serious – recommending your competitor (you’ll gain hugely in credibility). Then go back to your product people and convince them you’ve got a product problem, not a sales problem.

In the most usual case – your offering is comparable – you do not win by clever pricing, sexy presentations, or ingenious politics. And frankly, winning by adding more value or being cleverer at content is over-rated. Because let’s be honest: your competitors are more or less as smart or clever as you are. Expertise these days is a commodity.

Where you can win is by playing the long game, and the principles game. If you consistently aim to help your clients, being forthright at all times about what is in their best interest, they will notice. And you will get more than your “fair share” of business, i.e. more than just the share you might expect based solely on quality of service offering.

Because buyers prefer to deal with principled sellers who have their long-term interests at heart, rather than with serially selfish tacticians. For proof, just ask yourself and your firm how you behave as buyers.

Escaping the Grinding Wheels of Sales

Back to my workshop participant, caught between the grinding wheel of sales. How to escape it?

The answer is an inside job. It requires recognizing that all the tension comes from an inability to accept the Three Things:

  • We feel tension when we try to get people to do something we know they don’t really want
  • We feel tension when we try for what we want, rather than what helps the client
  • We feel tension when we try for the transaction, not the relationship.

So – don’t do that.

You must believe in and act on those principles. If you decide the principles need a little nudge, that somehow they’re not strong enough on their own, then you are simply willing yourself back into that space between the grinding wheels. If you can’t live your principles, you will not benefit from them. Nor would you deserve to.

But if you can believe and act on them, you no longer have to worry. Just do the next right thing. Be client-helpful in the long term. Don’t Always Be Closing: instead, Always Be Helping.

Work hard, but don’t spend an ounce of your effort on trying to get others to do your short-term selfish bidding. Let your competitors play that game, because it simply helps you play yours.

Answering Objections

What if your boss doesn’t buy it, you ask? Tell them you need 9 months to prove it. If they refuse to have anything to do with your view, then you must either come to peace with the grinding wheels, or accept that you’ll be happier in another place. The good news is, many managers are quite educable in this regard, particularly if you begin to deliver the numbers, and 9 months give or take is about enough time.

What if your clients don’t buy it, you ask? In my experience, about 80% of clients react the way I’ve described above. The others are either nasty people or monopolists, and they are the ones you should willingly cede to your competitors.

You can stop feeling ground down any time you choose to, starting now. Just choose to Always Be Helping.

Caught Between the Grinding Wheels of Sales

A workshop participant recently said something that instantly took me back a few decades. I remember feeling exactly as he described it:

What am I supposed to do? On the one hand, I genuinely want to do right by my client. At the same time, my firm is depending on me to drive revenue there. They’re not asking me to do anything wrong, of course, but the pressure is there nonetheless; it’s on me to figure out how to do it, how to ring the bell. And I’ve got to make it happen; it’s my job.

I feel caught between two grinding wheels: everyone’s nice about it, but that just makes it worse.  I don’t know how to make both sides happy, and it’s just grinding me down.

Exactly. Boy do I remember that. And if you sell systems, or professional services, or complex B2B services, I bet you can relate too.

So here’s what I’ve learned that’s kept me away from the grinding wheels for a long time now.

What You Must Remember

Here’s the thing. Three things, actually.

Thing 1. You can’t make people do what they don’t want. Trying to do so just makes it worse. And much ‘selling’ rhymes with trying to do just that. (One of my favorite findings in Neil Rackham’s great work SPIN Selling is that attempts to teach ‘closing’ actually made students worse at closing).

Thing 2. If you help other people, it predisposes them to help you. And “help” comes in many flavors, including – very much including – just plain old listening. Listening to people predisposes them to listen to  you. And listening to you tends to increase the odds of their buying.

Thing 3. Principle-based behavior beats tactical behavior. If your actions are always based on short-term self-interest, others will not trust you. If your actions are based on principles, others will see it and trust you, including in the buying process.

If you accept Thing 1, you’ll lose less. If you start doing Things 2 and 3, you’ll win more.

If you think rightly about these three ideas, and act on them – you can escape that feeling of being ground down.  Here’s how.

Putting the Basic Things Together

In the happy event that your offering is better than your competitor’s, don’t blow it by over-reaching. Be calm, open, and natural. Be forthright, but confident that your offering can speak for itself.

If your offering is worse than your competitor’s, don’t blunt your sword. Admit it. Do what you can to help your client, including – yes, I’m serious – recommending your competitor (you’ll gain hugely in credibility). Then go back to your product people and convince them you’ve got a product problem, not a sales problem.

In the most usual case – your offering is comparable – you do not win by clever pricing, sexy presentations, or ingenious politics. And frankly, winning by adding more value or being cleverer at content is over-rated. Because let’s be honest: your competitors are more or less as smart or clever as you are. Expertise these days is a commodity.

Where you can win is by playing the long game, and the principles game. If you consistently aim to help your clients, being forthright at all times about what is in their best interest, they will notice. And you will get more than your “fair share” of business, i.e. more than just the share you might expect based solely on quality of service offering.

Because buyers prefer to deal with principled sellers who have their long-term interests at heart, rather than with serially selfish tacticians. For proof, just ask yourself and your firm how you behave as buyers.

Escaping the Grinding Wheels of Sales

Back to my workshop participant, caught between the grinding wheel of sales. How to escape it?

The answer is an inside job. It requires recognizing that all the tension comes from an inability to accept the Three Things:

  • We feel tension when we try to get people to do something we know they don’t really want
  • We feel tension when we try for what we want, rather than what helps the client
  • We feel tension when we try for the transaction, not the relationship.

So – don’t do that.

You must believe in and act on those principles. If you decide the principles need a little nudge, that somehow they’re not strong enough on their own, then you are simply willing yourself back into that space between the grinding wheels. If you can’t live your principles, you will not benefit from them. Nor would you deserve to.

But if you can believe and act on them, you no longer have to worry. Just do the next right thing. Be client-helpful in the long term. Don’t Always Be Closing: instead, Always Be Helping.

Work hard, but don’t spend an ounce of your effort on trying to get others to do your short-term selfish bidding. Let your competitors play that game, because it simply helps you play yours.

Answering Objections

What if your boss doesn’t buy it, you ask? Tell them you need 9 months to prove it. If they refuse to have anything to do with your view, then you must either come to peace with the grinding wheels, or accept that you’ll be happier in another place. The good news is, many managers are quite educable in this regard, particularly if you begin to deliver the numbers, and 9 months give or take is about enough time.

What if your clients don’t buy it, you ask? In my experience, about 80% of clients react the way I’ve described above. The others are either nasty people or monopolists, and they are the ones you should willingly cede to your competitors.

You can stop feeling ground down any time you choose to, starting now. Just choose to Always Be Helping.

Competing with Colleagues

The Trusted Advisor: Click to BuyWhen I wrote The Trusted Advisor with David Maister and Rob Galford a few years back, it became reasonably successful within several months. (Amazingly, it still ranks #8,050 – as of this morning – on the list of all books on Amazon. That’s all books, including Harry Potter (#54), Capital (#41), etc. I’ll take long-sellers over best-sellers any day of the week).

With its success came a happy problem: how to parcel out the leads between the three of us? Let me be clear, the book wasn’t drowning us in leads; any one of the three of us could have happily fielded all inquiries. And while we wanted to be fair to each other, we were also all of us very clearly in competition with each other.

So the question: how do you compete with colleagues?

Competing with Colleagues

What if one of us got a lead based on the book? Did we have any obligation to pass it along to the other two? If so, how?  Should we establish a quota system, whereby each of us would get every third lead?

Should we let the market dictate things, and let whomever the client had reached out to handle the response? What if the client had written to all three of us?  Should we all respond confidentially, or in some sense share our responses?

The problem was not unique to us, though it seemed so at the time.  You may face a similar problem within your organization – who gets the lead? Who gets to present?

Or, you may come face to face with an  old friend who has changed uniforms and now works for a competitor. In any case, the tension is much the same – the sensation of being a colleague feels intensely in conflict with the sensation of being a competitor.

How do you resolve it?

The Solution

The answer to the problem came to us fairly quickly, on reflection, and I documented it as part of the Four Trust Principles in my later books. The answer lies in true focus on client needs.

In our case: we agreed that we should all respond similarly to all client inquiries, regardless of to whom they were addressed. In all cases, we would say words to the effect of:

The Trusted Advisor was written by the three of us. I suspect that each of us could do an excellent job in response to your query, and each of us would handle the work slightly differently. You would be best served by having discussions with each of us, and making up your mind on that basis.

We will each be candid with respect to our own strengths and weaknesses, and answer questions to the best of our ability about the others. Each of us will respect your decision, and we are each committed to you making the best decision possible for you.

The best decision for you is what all three of us seek, and each of us will do our best to help you reach it, regardless of your choice.

This solution made everything easier. It kept our relationship collegial. It removed any awkwardness about responding to clients. It removed any awkwardness that clients might experience in choosing whom to talk to.

And, of course, it resulted in the best decision for clients, as each of us have our own particular skills and drawbacks.

So what’s the answer?  Grindingly relentless focus on client service, and the willingness to pursue that logic wherever it leads.

Expense Sheets and Cultures of Trust

Business travelers know the taxi expense fiddle. You ask the taxi driver for a receipt. He winks at you and gives you a blank form, implying you can fill it in later, and who’s to say how much that ride cost, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

How honest are you about the number you write down? How honest do you think others are? Do you think it varies by occupation? By income level? By geography? Would a college professor from Ohio State be less, or more, honest than an associate at a New York private equity firm?

Does the typical response look different in Beijing than in New York? What about Paris? Or Buenos Aires?

What are the cultures of trust? And what drives them?

Chinese Receipts and American Rentals

In China, street vendors hawk fake receipts for sale, as if they were DVDs or watches or fast food.   An American instinctively thinks, “How corrupt!” And yes, it is.

The news is also rife with stories of massive graft in Chinese government, with mid-level officials buying Mercedes and expensive wines. We also hear horror stories emanating from China about food safety.

Clearly China has a problem with trust in government and business. We in the West can comfortably turn up our noses and tell ourselves that at least our trust issues are far more evolved.

Or are they? Consider the NY private equity partner and lawyer who engaged a broker to find a scarce rental in the Hamptons.  When the broker found them one, they brazenly approached the owner to cut out the middleman broker.

Consider the Big Company which, when charged with violating their self-advertised objectivity, independence and integrity came up with the novel defense that hey, nobody believes that crap anyway, so don’t hold us to it.

Leaving aside whether those kinds of violations are more “evolved,” they surely are different in kind. What are those differences?  What are the kinds?

Cultures of Trust

We often talk about trust in business as if it were a single, universal trait. It is not. Francis Fukuyama, in his seminal book Trust, wrote well about this. In China, the level of trust is very high within extended family relationships – but quite low outside it. The reasons are linked to China’s historical development.

By contrast, French society has a great deal of confidence in centralized, bureaucratic institutions, e.g. the Ecole Polytechnique, or wine labeling.  Trust in Japan is high within the island-bound nation/culture of Japan itself, but much lower when it comes to gaijin. In southern Italy and Eastern Europe, trust is often more tribal.  And so forth.

What is the culture of trust in the US, particularly in business? Given the nation’s short and melting-pot  based history, it’s not driven by a common culture or religion. Instead, there are two ideologies that play a particular role in determining the nature of trust in the US: freedom and capitalism.

The “brand” of the US has always pitched freedom as front and center, and not just religious freedom. For countless millions, it has meant freedom to make it economically, through the fruits of your own labor, if not for you then for your kids.

Closely linked to that is our view of capitalism. While of course there are nuances, the main view of business throughout our history has been a belief that the pursuit of individual good ends up benefiting society as a whole. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand has been a welcome metaphor for US business over the years.

There are a whole lot of things to admire about that ideology; the US can point to its own economy as Exhibit A. But it does mean we look at trust in a  slightly different way than do Chinese, or Russians, or Chileans.

In particular, we look at it like rules in a game.

The rules of the game are clear, but they can change. We generally don’t like rules, but admit that some are necessary. We have referees to help interpret and enforce those rules. Occasionally, the refs get over-matched, and social change results (though usually not before some disaster makes it politically unavoidable).

The main rule is, stay within the rules. All else is fair game, until and unless the rules change.

That kind of ideology makes trust a little more conditional in the US than elsewhere. And there is good and bad in that as well. The good part is that Americans can move with the times, adjust, be flexible about issues of trust when the need arises. The rules of trust may change, but the game itself keeps its integrity.

The American trust problem arises, I think, when we stop treating business as a game. And we have. Etiquette is out. Simple agreements are so last-century – now they need hedging with counter-parties. And handshake deals? Last millennium.

The rules become exogenous to the game, seen as a hindrance, and only one rule survives– survival of the fittest. That’s where we’ve gotten to, and the results are ugly. The doctrine of competitive strategy says, at its heart, that relationships are a cruel myth – the only thing that matters is sustainable competitive advantage, over your customers, your employees, and everyone else.

We’ve marinated in that solitary stew long enough. In an increasingly inter-dependent world, the view of every-man-for-himself is a recipe for a circular firing squad.

A New Business Ideology?

Are things changing? Does Capitalism 2.0 require Adam Smith 2.0, or something even more radical? I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Sales, Surgeons and Profits

iStock_000002256780XSmallThe NYTimes recently published Salesmen in the Surgical Suite, a look at some questionable sales practices in the US surrounding a robotic surgical technology called the da Vinci Surgical System, a product of Intuitive Surgical Inc. The article cites a case of severe damage to a patient due to inadequate training of surgeons, and a variety of documented practices by Intuitive pushing the limits of proper training and supervision.

My point is not to argue the case for or against the company; that’s being done already in a case filed against them. What I do want to touch on is how we should think about issues like this. In other words – just what kind of a problem do we have here?

Profit vs. Patients?

The ultimate issue, I suggest, is the relationship between a for-profit business and the well-being of the end-user customers. Health care is an extreme case, because of the direct link between the two; but in a sense, this is the same issue we face in a capitalist society for any good or service. Healthcare, and surgery in particular, are extreme cases, thus useful for clarifying issues.

There are three commonly heard points of view:

1. There is an innate conflict between the interests of the profit-seeking business sector and the ultimate good of the patients; this conflict must be regulated by a third party of some sort.

2. There is no innate conflict between business and patients, except insofar as business is regulated by governmental and other third parties, who inevitably just distort the ideal workings of pure markets.

3. There is no innate conflict between business and patients, except insofar as business misreads its own long-term self interest by being addicted to short-term fixes, leading to regulation – a self-inflicted shooting in the foot.

The first two arguments are endlessly hashed over, with much heat and little light, in all the various venues of the day: from Congress to HuffPost to talk radio to coffee shops. (I suspect this debate is largely a US debate, as most other developed economies have tilted toward the first viewpoint, far away from the second). I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about the relative merits of one and two.

But number three is interesting: it suggests that the business-society conflict is unnecessary, and that the solution lies largely within the hands of business itself. All that right vs. left, redneck vs. socialist shouting is nothing more than noise.

Is this a utopian, pollyana-ish view? Or is it very real?

The Best Interests of Business

We can reframe the issue as simply, “Is there or is there not a long-term fit between the interests of business and consumers?” Karl Marx answered in the negative, and claimed that the tension would ultimately result in revolution. I suggest that any right-thinking capitalist must answer in the affirmative – there must be a commonality of interest, else the doctrine of capitalism is of little use or interest.

But if that’s the case in the long run – why then isn’t it in the short run? Why do we see salespeople play with endangering people’s lives in order to get the order in before the end of the quarter? Why do companies fight for less regulation, commit economically foolish acts in order to smooth quarterly earnings, and prefer the net present monetized value of almost anything, rather than the longer-term asset that comes from brand, history and culture?

We live in a very imperfect business world, I suggest. We do not do a good job of assessing economic good, or even of assessing business value. We rely on definitions of value which are narrow, solely financial in nature, and short-term. The tyranny of the discount rate leads us to forego thinking about the next generation – it’s just un-economic to worry about something 40 years out, there’s not enough present value in it to justify it.  The Chinese have a history of looking at hundred-year timeframes; the US struggles to get past quarterly, and three years might as well be a lifetime.

The poverty of our financial calculus can be described several ways. Economists would say we do not take into account externalities, so we delude ourselves about the costs of degrading the environment. Social scientists describe it as resulting in a poverty of the spirit (a tone we hear echoed by those who preach ‘the final days of the empire’).

This poverty of calculus is supported by impoverished thinking. Adam Smith was brilliant; the caricatures of him that came down through Ayn Rand and the Chamber of Commerce retain nothing of his focus on the good of society, much less his work on the moral sentiments. Even business theory is impoverished – NPS and Five Forces just don’t have the sweep that we saw from Peter Drucker or even Sun Tsu.

What I’m suggesting is that business needs to radically re-think itself, across the board, into a long-term partnership with the rest of society. The commercial instinct of mankind ought to be a driver of value and wealth creation for all of society, and not hostage to an ongoing battle between haves and have-nots. Whether we need more or less government, more or less regulation, should not be the issue.  The issue should be how can business and society line up on the same team?

We really should be able to do better.

Competitive Theory and Business Legitimacy: BusinessWeek.com Article

Rather than write two posts today, I’d like to point you to my article at Businessweek.com on Michael Porter, competitive theory and business legitimacy.  Or rather, on how business can regain its legitimacy, which is at generational lows.

The issue of business legitimacy was raised in Businessweek.com by my old (and very distinguished) professor Michael Porter, who suggested that legitimacy has to be regained not through charity but by having part of businesses core purpose be to do good.  I think this is correct, as far as it goes, but I suggest taking a long term perspective may be more successful than his way.

Click on over to BusinessWeek.com and read today’s post there.  Let me know what you think, because it’s about more than just legitimacy, it’s about how and why we run our businesses.

The Changing Face of Capitalism: Schizophrenia in the Apple Store

The other day I was in one of the Apple Stores. The hinge had broken on my MacBook Air, which meant the top of the computer, the screen part, had to be replaced. It was to be done for free, which I love about Apple.

The store was crowded; I asked the young lady salesperson if using my Mac ProCare card would move things along. She looked at my card, told me it was out of date, and offered to go update it.

When she came back, she was apologetic. “The thing is,” she stammered, “I think they’re kind of going to be de-emphasizing the ProCare program.”

“Huh?” I said. “Is it continuing, or not?”

“Well, I think they’re maybe going to be phasing it out,” she squirmed.

“As of when is it phasing out?” I asked, “ and is there a replacement program? I just want to know how to get premium service.”

“Well, I think they’ve already stopped it, really,” she stammered. This was getting nowhere fast.

Fortunately, the store manager came by and took over; he assured me I’d get the repaired computer by day’s end (which I did, by the way).  I asked him, “What’s up with the ProCare program?”

“Oh,” he said, “we’re discontinuing it.”

“Why?”

“Well, it was so popular that everyone was buying it, and then you have a problem with, like, who do you let at the head of the line, and who do you have to say no to, and all that sort of hassle.”

This boggled my mind. “Why not just raise the price?” I asked.

He laughed. “You know, several other people have suggested that too.”

“Well no wonder they have,” I said. “If everybody wants something at one price, raise the price—you make more money, and it very easily sorts out to whom it’s worth more and to whom it isn’t.”

“Yeah, but it’s kind of unfair that way too, you know,” he said, in a ‘you clearly don’t get it, do you’ sort of a way. And I left, bemused again at the curious mix of capitalism and west-coast do-goodism that is Apple Computer.

No company is better at in-your-face planned obsolescence than Apple; just trying getting a replacement battery for an iPod. No company is better at aggressive pricing; and how many mature companies can claim a stock price growth of ten fold in five years?

All this, in spite of echoes of PC (not the computer) instincts and shades of tie-dyed Deadhead ethos in the stores. Or, is it because of said instincts and ethos?

Changing Ideologies in Business: From Competitive Capitalism to Collaborative Capitalism

Then again, why should Apple be unique in its schizophrenia about capitalism? Business in general is in the midst of a paradigm shift in business, away from shareholder-centricity toward stakeholder-centricity. An excellent article in the Economist  summarizes this ideological shift, citing several current business thinkers.

Business, I think, is undergoing some serious foment with respect to some very fundamental beliefs. Milton Friedman, Michael Porter, Michael Jensen—these are the thought leaders of the past, championing neo-classical economics, the purification of competition, and the primacy of shareholder wealth respectively.

The new thought leaders remain to be definitively enumerated, but the issues are emerging. They rhyme with collaboration, trust, networking, flat organizations, and Gen Y. To name a few.

Stay tuned, it’s getting interesting. And Steve Jobs may end up, once again, looking pretty prescient.
 

The Evolution of Capitalism

Dinosaurs fightingIn 1986, I attended my 10th MBA reunion. I sat in a class taught by Joseph Bower, along with the classes of various years ending in a “6” or a “1.”

Bower talked about global over-capacity in the chemical industry and what could be done about it: “co-opetition” was his solution. The 5-year people looked somewhat bored by it. I found it quite fascinating, as did others in my year.

But the old guys were apoplectic. They spluttered and muttered things like ‘what has this school come to, don’t they know it’s a business school,’ and the like. To them, it was but a short hop to socialism.

It was never that simple. At that time there were already newspaper company joint operating agreements, which amounted to co-opetition in the very newsprint these old gents held in their hands at the Club in the evening. But no matter, ideology dies hard.

Their form of ideology—competition to the death, but in a gentlemanly kind of way—went through a resurgence in the 1980s with the advent of competitive strategy. We heard some about strategic alliances, but as far as I was concerned, co-opetition didn’t get back to the front page.

New Assaults on Old Business Ideologies

But as Michael Jackson once said, that was then: this is now. Now there is some serious re-examination going on about the nature of capitalism.

Umair Haque, who’s based in London, is burning up the Harvard Business Review blog scene by writing about constructive capitalism and about the economics of good and evil

At Harvard itself, Bruce R. Scott  writes with great perspective and wisdom about the complex relationship between democracy and capitalism. Sorry, die-hard fans of Adam Smith’s invisible hand; it just ain’t that simple.

And speaking of the Invisible Hand, Adam Smith first used that metaphor in his earlier book, the Theory of Moral Sentiments. He used it to describe the natural working of human sympathies for each other. Over a decade later he resurrected the metaphor to do double duty in Wealth of Nations, where he used it to describe the workings of a competitive market.

At the Boston Consulting Group, Philip Evans and team have done great research into just how it is that Toyota is so much more cost-effective than Detroit at building cars. It’s not pension and health care costs—it’s more effective process innovation, which in turn comes from—omigosh, collaboration. I imagine the old-timers from my reunion popping a blood vessel over that one.

I’m currently reading Winner Take All: How Competitiveness Shapes the Fate of Nations,  by Richard Elkus. Elkus was present at the creation—and destruction—of the US consumer electronics industry, working for Ampex.

Ampex coulda been Sony, or Toshiba. The reason it wasn’t is excruciatingly obvious as Elkus tells the tale of US management doing its best: valuing the transaction over the relationship, focusing on competition not collaboration, channel-loading and fudging costs, and converting all business issues into present value financial calculations.

Up against an Akio Morita, who actually believed in alliances and collaboration, who understood interconnection in technologies, and who worked for the long term, Ampex didn’t stand a chance. Nor Zenith. Nor, I would add, Detroit. The colossal disadvantage of our national economy at this point, he argues, is that we have sold all our technology for licensing fees, outsourced all our manufacturing for low input costs for quarterly earnings, and made ourselves little else but master marketers and consumers.  We exited what BCG called ‘dog’ businesses, and ended up dog food.

The Coming of Collaborative Capitalism

I’ve played around with various terms for it, but I’m liking “collaborative capitalism.” It’s light-years beyond 1986’s co-opetition, because it’s not just capacity-sharing.  It’s true collaboration and trust, working beyond corporate walls and across companies.  Many of us are seeing this trend at the same time.

Way back in 2002—a couple recessions or so ago—I wrote a little article called The Death of Corporations.  It basically said companies who competed against each other were, to use Robert Frost’s metaphor, disappearing not with a bang, but a whimper, as commerce gradually begins to operate across and through companies, rather than in the form of mega-goliath companies clumsily "competing" against each other, spouting their platitudes.

I still think that article’s going to be an overnight sensation, it just needs a little more time…