Posts

Can You Differentiate Yourself from a Competitor in a Sales Presentation?

It’s tempting. Can you just come out and say you’re the best, without look self-serving? Can you point out a weakness in your competitor without it looking like bragging or mud-slinging? And if the client really needs to know something less-than-perfect about the competitor: can you point it out?

I rarely cite politicians in this blog, but one piece of received political wisdom works in business too: if you’re in the lead, don’t debate the challenger.

Politics offers another lesson too: mud-slinging poisons the well. Negative campaigning works–in the short run. In the not-very long run, it doesn’t work for anybody, including the slinger and the public. No wonder politicians rank so low in trust.

Competitive Disadvantage

Business has focused in recent decades heavily on competition. Try completing this sentence: “The purpose of a company is to…” Way too many people are channeling Ayn Rand these days, by saying “…make money.”

Peter Drucker, esteemed business guru, finished it this way: “…create and serve customers.” Drucker is still respected, but more quoted than acted upon.

In selling, there has always been this tension between a focus on competition and on customers. Is winning a byproduct of customer focus? Or is winning the goal, and customer focus simply a means to the greater end of winning?

Consider romantic relationships: is the best strategy for seeking a partner to disparage his/her other suitors? Or to focus on your intended? I vote for number 2.

True Client Focus

You may be thinking, “Don’t I have an obligation to politely show my client how we’re right and they’re wrong?”

Well, what does the client hear when you disparage a competitor? Of course, they may hear what you intend—that on some important dimension, you are better. But there is collateral damage.

They will also hear “These folks are focused on winning, not on helping me. How do I know I can trust their critique? What are they not telling me? It’s my job, not theirs, to make the judgment. Should I give the competitor a second chance to explain? Why are they sticking me in the middle of a technical dispute?

Be careful also of thinking, “I’m not mud-slinging. I’m being professional, objectively pointing out important risks. I’m helping them.”

Too bad motives aren’t everything. Motives won’t change those unspoken client questions. The more you insist how clean your motives are, the more they’re suspect.

The Long Term is Not So Long Anymore

Reputations spread like wildfire on the web. Worse yet, reputations are no longer based on carefully crafted positioning statements, but on suddenly-public daily corporate life.

Non-marketing actions issues like customer service, lead screening, purchasing processes–and comments about competitors–are suddenly driving brand image.

He who tells a lie gets known as a liar. He who slings mud gets known as a mud-slinger—much faster, and much more broadly, than ever before. What goes around comes around—just a lot faster.

Be careful what you wish for: you may (or may not) win the particular argument, but you will definitely create a lasting impression—and not a good one.

The Good News in Leaving Competitors Alone

The good news is the ‘right’ thing to do is increasingly looking like the smart thing to do. Focusing on your client, that is. When trust in businesses is declining, those who act in a trustworthy manner differentiate themselves. And isn’t that what you wanted?

So how do you differentiate yourself in a sales presentation? Stop asking that question: focus on the client in front of you.

Differentiation is not about what you say about others: it’s about who you reveal yourself to be.
 

Collaboration as a Strategy, Not a Tactic

First, some context.

Two weeks ago I wrote an article in Businessweek.com called Wall Street Run Amok: Harvard’s to blame.  In it, I suggested  that business schools including Harvard have over-taught competition, and under-taught collaboration—a concept more appropriate to our connected times.  CNBC saw the article and interviewed me, albeit over-playing the blame-Harvard angle.

Then, last week, Harvard Business School’s Deputy Dean of Academic Affairs Karl Kester logged in to the Businessweek.com article and posted a lengthy rebuttal comment both there and on his own site.  Rather than further this discussion in our separate forums, I’d like to invite Dean Kester to continue the dialogue here, in this blog’s open comments section, along with others interested in the topic. Clearly the issue strikes a chord with many. 

Business Schools Have Taught Competitive Success as the Ultimate Goal

Whether you call it sustainable competitive advantage, maximizing shareholder wealth, or simply ‘winning,’ the dominant worldview in business today is that business is all about competition. Ask an MBA to provide an alternate worldview and you’ll get glazed looks.

It was not always thus. Only since the seventies have business schools made the adjective in “competitive strategy” so ubiquitous as to be redundant. Before that, ‘strategy’ had a decidedly more customer-focused tone to it—for example, read Peter Drucker. (I won’t rehash the argument, it’s in the businessweek.com article).

That belief system has become so entrenched that nearly any other aspect of business has become subordinated to “competitive success.” Think of any subject you like–human resources, values-based management, compensation management, employee engagement, customer satisfaction—and you will find that corporations routinely attempt to justify even the most humanitarian programs in terms of their ability to add to the bottom line. Their bottom line, that is–not that of the network, or supply chain, or their partners.

“Good ethics is good business,” they say, as if ethics demanded a currency-based justification. “Happy people lead to higher profits,” “being socially responsible is associated with higher returns on investment,” and so on.

Why must every social virtue be justified solely in terms of its ability to add to the bottom line? Why do we in business not see this  Kool Aid we have been drinking for the self-obsessing small-think it is?

This is precisely the trap into which I believe Dean Kester falls with his comments, and why this conversation needs more airing.

Collaboration as a Tactic–Yesterday’s View

Dean Kester says, in his response to me:

"Today, more than ever, business is a competitive endeavor. At the same time, management is a more collaborative endeavor. At Harvard Business School we embrace both of these truths in preparing our students to become successful leaders in business and social enterprise."

This approach–that business is about competition and management is about collaboration–is precisely the default idea in business today. It suggests that  the purpose of trust and collaboration is to help Our Team to beat Their Team; that collaboration is but a tactic in service to competitive strategy; and that collaboration should somehow be subordinated to a superordinate goal–the success of the competitor.

This is vintage Business School (not just Harvard), Jack Welch, and Corporate America ideology. 

It is an idea, I want to suggest, whose time has passed. 

Deputy Dean Kester’s above response is a perfect example of the current thinking, and in turn suggests how deeply embedded that way of thinking is. Dean Kester is hardly alone in this viewpoint.  But neither am I alone in noticing that over-dosing on the ideology of competition is starting to cause serious economic harm. Here’s where I see the new view heading.

Collaboration as a Strategy–Today’s View

Yesterday’s world—the competition-centric worldview—explicitly sees customers and suppliers as competitors, along with direct competitors.

In today’s flat, connected world, our first instinctive look at the world should not be based on the threats posed by our customers, but by the enormous opportunities available to us each if we can operate together.  In a connected, transaction-cost laden world, it is simply more economic to trust than to compete.  (See Philip Evans on a convincing presentation of the US vs. the Japanese auto industry and the power of collaboration).

What’s the alternative, you ask? Simple. Stop thinking about ‘winning,’ with its zero-sum implications and paranoid overtones.  Instead, start thinking about succeeding, something that is best achieved in concert with others, like our customers and suppliers.  We need to think more about commerce, less about competition.  The critical nexus is between sellers and buyers, not sellers and their competitors.

Trust.  Collaboration.  Success.  Cooperation.  Boundarylessness beyond the corporate walls.  Our customers are not our enemies, for heaven’s sake–they are our customers!

I am far from the first to make this point: see Is It Time to Retrain B-Schools?  Nor is this my first time: see The Horizontal Imperative from February 2007, and Collaboration is the New Competition from March 2008.

Trust and Collaboration: The New Leaders

We can’t any longer let collaboration be the handmaiden of competitive advantage—in the age of networking /globalization / outsourcing it should be a goal in itself. If collaboration in your company isn’t strategic, you’re not doing it right. It is the new Key Success Factor.

The business schools are fully capable of recovering the intellectual high ground in this area. After all, several faculty at Harvard—Heskett, Schlesinger, Sasser—along with Frederick Reichheld at Bain—are responsible for superb, highly customer-focused, original work on customer loyalty.

But the b-schools are not, as yet, institutionally leading the charge nowadays.  For now, leadership is coming from the newly emerging world of blogs and social networking—for example, from people like Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, authors of Trust Agents.  (Other key thought leaders in this area include Robert Scoble, Philip Evans of BCG, Dov Seidman of LRN, and the young-at-heart Tom Peters).

These new leaders are not just talking about social media and networks–they’re living them and driving them in real businesses.  And they are vastly more collaborative than competitive.

Let’s keep this dialogue going.  Thanks to Dean Kester for stating his case.  Now let’s talk about where we go from here.

On that note, if you’re interested in continuing the conversation about trust and collaboration with Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, as well as myself and David Maister (co-author, with Rob Galford) of The Trusted Advisor, come join all four of us at the Trust Summit to be held in New York this Friday morning (auspiciously, at the Harvard Club) at 7:30AM.

I’d love, in particular, for Dean Kester to join us, and in the interests of furthering the conversation the already nominal ticket charge is waived for him.

Click here for more information about the event and about Brogan, Smith, Maister and myself.

Click here to buy tickets for the Trust Summit event.

And bring your best collaboration skills—it’s not a tactic, it’s the whole point.
 

The Boston Consulting Group Caused the Recession

Like all good conspiracy theories, this one may have a few loose links.  But work with me here–it’s a good story.

The 70s: When Strategy Became Competitive Strategy

Back in the 60s, Bruce Henderson, chafing at Arthur D. Little, re-conceived competitive strategy.  He founded the Boston Consulting Group, who in the 70s introduced the world to concepts like the experience curve, the Doom Loop, and the barnyard strategy matrix

Together with Michael Porter, they redefined strategy from a vague, military idea, to a disciplined, quantitative analysis based on a Hobbesian view of the business world: a State of Nature as Competition.  Competitors lurked everywhere–including masquerading as your suppliers and your customers.  Henceforth, all talk of "strategy" would implicitly have “competitive” as a leading adjective.

It is hard to describe today the impact this new ideology had on the business community.  Suddenly the world made sense—everything was about competition, and everything was quantitative.  It was about winning, and the winner was the one who ran the numbers best.  Peter Drucker was so 10 minutes ago–now, if you couldn’t measure it, you couldn’t manage it.

The 90s: When Organizations Became Processes

In the early 90s, Michael Hammer  and James Champy wrote Reengineering the Corporation, and the other shoe dropped.   The other shoe was business process re-engineering.  Pre-Hammer, companies were functional organizations.  Post-Hammer, they were bundles of processes. 

Functional organizations were messy things that needed coordinating, leading, managing.  Processes could be broken out, modularized, tinker-toy-rebuilt, outsourced, and re-assembled—and despite Hammer’s later protestations, the idea remained attractively impersonal to its fans. 

The 00s: Metrics, Competition and Process Prepare the TinderBox

BCG, B-schools and other leading business thinkers embarked on a decade of exploring the implications.  The Holy Grail of business had become sustainable competitive advantage, which produced economic value added, which produced maximal shareholder value. 

You got there by achieving global scale in every business process: if you weren’t #1 or #2 in any process, you outsourced it to one who was.

Outsourcing to achieve scale through best practices meant multiplying transactions, reducing time-frames, and replacing messy relationships with tightly written contracts–or, better yet, markets, the truly impersonal solution.  Performance was quantitatively defined, included not only in contracts between companies, but in employee relationships with people (who were renamed “human capital” to fit the new business Esperanto—finance).  No need to inspire or manage through people; just craft a blend of  metrics and incentives, the way Skinner incented those white mice in his boxes.  Poster child: Jack Welch.

An example: the mortgage industry.  The purveyors of the competitive/process/metric paradigm saw mortgage as an industry that was regionally fragmented, structurally clumpy, high cost, stodgy, inefficient, illiquid, and highly subjective.

In 15 years, they transformed it.  The mortgage business became globally integrated, highly specialized (substituting markets for organizations via disintermediation), low-cost, nimble, cutting edge, efficient, liquid, and highly impersonal.  It became a market-driven, process-linked, globally efficient industry.  That’s all true.

It also became bereft of relationships; laden with perverse incentives; managed by serial transactors; stripped of any sense of responsibility; and governed solely by financial metrics.  In a business whose product already was money, the doubling-up emphasis on financial metrics obliterated any memory of other principles or values that might have once existed in the financial sector. 

The new mantra was IBGYBG. I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone; do the deal and let the next sucker clean it up.  The entire Meaning of Business became—to make more money than the other guys.  Period.

You work for your company–in theory, the shareholders.  Your company’s job is to win.  You win by beating others before they beat you.  Customers are walking wallets, sources of the poker chips you use to measure success.  Suppliers are to be played off against each other.  All parties are to be managed in clumps of processes, carrotted-and-sticked to behave in certain ways.  That, simply, is how it was supposed to work.  According to this mantra.

This ideology didn’t just happen.  It was four decades in the making. 

Bruce Henderson didn’t mean to do it—but he set the wheels in motion.  BCG, Hammer, Porter, and CSC-Index made it look enticing.  Economists and quant-wannabes from the HR, exec-comp and leadership world added their hops and spices to the brew.  Goldman Stanley and Morgan Sachs refined it; private equity and financial engineers distilled it; and Merrill Stearns, mortgage brokers and Joe the Plumber  got drunk on it.

Complicated?  Yes.  That’s where conspiracy theories come in; they let you simplify.  So pardon me if I just use the shorthand version: BCG caused the recession.
 

Ethics vs. Jack Welch at the West Point of Capitalism

You may have heard about the recent so-called MBA Oath undertaken by some students at Harvard Business School.  Do click the link, it’s a short read, but to summarize it even more, it’s an oath to behave in ethically, non-selfishly motivated, socially responsible ways.

MBA Students For Ethics and Social Responsibility?

Here’s the May 30 NYTimes story,  as of which date “nearly 20% of the graduating class” had signed the oath.  When I read that, I resolved to blog about it in a week’s time.  It was clear to me on May 30 what I was going to say:

No biggie.  In my own class (1976) it wouldn’t have surprised me if as many as 10% would have signed such an oath.  That would suggest either a doubling or a 10 percentage point increase every 35 years.  

By that arithmetic it would take either until the year 2061 or the year 2114 for 51% of Harvard MBAs to agree with such controversial statements as “I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner."  Oath?  Much ado about nothing.

Well, shame on me, o me of little faith in my descendant classmates, because as of June 3 (according to the Economist’s story), that number was up to 400—roughly half, by my close-enough calculations. 

Now, half is considerably larger than 20%.  In fact, I think it’s more like 50%, though HBS MBAs in my day weren’t all that great at math (‘go hire one from MIT if you need it’ was the not-so-tongue-in-cheek phrase we heard).  And I am quite sure, as I mentally run down my list of classmates, that nowhere near 50% would have signed the oath back in the day.

Ethical Progress at Harvard Business School?

I’ve previously critiqued the ethics course at HBS  and b-schools in general for not getting it right, but this is different—as a whole, this manifesto gets it very right.

I don’t like using superlative buzz words, but the “sea change” metaphor comes to mind.  Or, to mimic Verizon’s FIOS ad, “This is big.”

How big?  Let’s contrast it with Jack Welch. 

Welch was recently trotted out from the dead to reprise his greatest hits at a Bloomberg/Vanity Fair economic forum.  It had a shot at being an intelligent economic dialogue until Jack popped open the coffin lid and shouted “buy or bury the competition!”  thus drawing loud applause from the over-60 crowd in attendance. 

Now, GE’s stock price when Welch left in 2001 was 50; it since dropped as low as 8.  Today it’s 14.  But don’t tell me that’s the fault of his (handpicked) successors; it’s what happens when a formerly great strategy meets seriously new times (and Imelt can’t work Welch’s old opaque GE Capital magic anymore).  That applause at Bloomberg  was the sound of the old guard waxing nostalgic, still hoping to believe in the old verities.  But they’re gone, gone. 

Jack Welch, Old School: Interconnected World, New School

Jack WelchThe old strategy?  Competition, competition.  Your customers and your suppliers are your competitors.  Be boundaryless–right up to  the boundary of your own company, where it becomes bury the enemy. 

The new strategy?  Collaboration, collaboration.  It’s a flat world; joint venture, alliance, outsource, teamwork, network, share.  Your customer is your purpose for being, and your supplier is your life partner.  We’ve finally gotten past Thomas Hobbes–and just in time to deal with global warming and global supply chains.

Which strategy is right for the times?  Look at Detroit; a fervent worshiper of the Competitive Gospel.  According to Welch, Detroit’s downfall was unions, pension laws and health care.

Booshwah; Detroit’s Achilles’ heel was an ideology that, unlike Toyota, pitted them against their own suppliers in an era where supply chain relationships proved the key to lower systemic costs; where one team measured "long term" in 3-year cycles, and the other measured it in generations.

Dealing with GE today is still like dealing with Welch.  They’d rather do reverse online auctions than engage in relationships.  They are shooting their own economics in the foot by declaring,  like old Bolsheviks, "we will bury you" at their fellow commercial travellers.

Me, I’ll bet on the new kids in town, who understand 1+1 >3,  and 1 vs. 1 <2; who say things like

>I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.
and
>I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.

Good for you, HBS class of 2009.  I say you done us proud. 
 

Competing With Your Supplier is Not a Best Practice

Fortune’s Geoff Colvin writes in the July 21 edition about Gary Reiner, GE’s CIO, in Information Worth Billions: General Electric’s CIO Tells How He Makes Infotech Pay In a Big Way.

Reiner reports directly to Jeff Immelt, GE’s CEO. Immelt wants three things from him—one of which is sourcing. Says Reiner:

"…we were one of the first to do e-auctioning. Our job would be to commoditize the item as much as possible and then leverage IT to have our suppliers bid for the business.

Of course, Reiner says that though GE loves to buy through reverse auctions, it hates to sell that way.

"…the more commodity-like the part or service is, the easier it is to auction; and the more differentiated, the less easy it is to auction…we try to make more of our business portfolio be products and services that are non-commodity—that are differentiated. So we are not as auctioned on the sell side as we are on the buy side.

All well and good. And of course (insert here your favorite paragraph on the fabulous track record of GE, Jack Welch, etc.).

And yet, and yet…

I’m left with the inescapable feeling that Reiner—and Immelt, and GE—view business as being exclusively and exhaustively about competition. Including competing with your suppliers. And competing with your customers.

With suppliers, it’s about extracting the best price from an auction. With customers, it’s about extracting the best price by avoiding an auction.

In both cases, it’s about extracting maximum price in a zero-sum transaction whose boundaries are limited to product features, product quality, and price. What’s good for me is not good for you, and vice versa. We are inextricably opposed.

If that sounds perfectly obvious and normal to you, then think about what’s missing.

A relationship. An approach of collaboration. A view that this transaction isn’t a carefully negotiated one-night stand, but rather a joint journey. A view that gets beyond mere product characteristics and price. A sense of commitment to customers or suppliers. A feeling of responsibility for the health of both parties. A willingness to pool information, rather than use it as a wedge.

That’s some of what’s missing.

Let’s call GE’s view the “competition-centric” view. It was given intellectual expression and validity by Michael Porter in his 1978 classic Competitive Strategy. In that book, Porter laid out quite clearly the nature of business: it was to compete. And the nature of competition was equally clear. There were five competitive dynamics facing the firm: two of those five were the competitive struggle between the firm and its customers, and the firm and its suppliers.

In other words—business, by this view, is quite specifically about competing with your customers (and suppliers).

This view is not “wrong” per se. It helped a lot of companies—including GE—to survive and prosper.

But this is not your father’s business world. Nor Jack Welch’s. Not any longer.

Today’s "flat" business world—30 years after Porter—is about extended enterprises, not hard-walled corporations. It’s about supply chains, not about monolithic vertically integrated organizations. Best practices today are about collaboration, not competition; about influencing, not managing; about commercial relationships, not competitive ones. It’s about 1+1=3, not "do unto others before they do unto me."

Those who succeed today aren’t those who play “hardball,” but those who learned early on to play nicely in the sandbox with others. Because in today’s business world, there is no longer any separation worth the name; in a globally scaled world, everyone outsources pretty much everything. A competitor today is a collaborator tomorrow and a customer or supplier on alternate Tuesdays.

Exhibit 1: the auto industry. Toyota has a genuine cost advantage over Detroit because it has always treated its suppliers as an extended organization—not as enemies to be kept at bay and bled nearly dry. That collaborative advantage is the competitive truth—not the self-serving excuses (by Welch, among others) about health care and pension costs (which were after all freely signed into contracts by Detroit management without a gun to its head).

Yet the dominant business ideology in the West continues to be—competition. These antiquated belief systems are increasingly at direct odds with the horizontal, extended, diffuse, globally interdependent world we now live in.

And of course, that’s how it works. Beliefs die hard—well after the conditions that birthed them are long gone. Ideology is the last vestige of a changing world.

Competing with your customers? If that was ever a “best practice,” it should now be relegated to an increasingly bygone world. It’s not “bad” or “wrong”—it just doesn’t work as well anymore. And that trend is only increasing.

 

Why Modern Sales is so Anti Trust

The Sandler Sales Institute offers one of many approaches to selling available to corporate sales organizations.

I don’t know their work personally, but they have a good reputation, as far as I know. And just two weeks ago, I heard a very solid testimonial about some of their work from a very savvy, and satisfied, client.

I say that as preamble because I have no reason to think they are worse than any other sales training approach in the market; in fact, my only first-hand data says they are better. Still. Nonetheless. Try this quote(pdf) on for size:

Sandler Rule: The professional never does anything by accident. You should never ask a question, make a statement, or behave in any way unless it is in your best selling interest.

The advice that follows is pretty good—listen more, let the customer talk—but it’s hard to get past that opening statement. Basically, it says, never do anything that won’t help close the sale for you.

That would rule out mentioning solutions that don’t rhyme with what you’re selling. It would rule out referring customers elsewhere. Or suggesting a customer can’t afford what you’re selling. Or that your product might be wrong for a particular customer.

Simply put—if your customer’s needs don’t match what you’re selling—don’t mention it. Sell it anyway. Don’t do, say, or think anything that might keep you from closing that transaction.

Think about the mindset implicit in this view. It says the seller’s interests are deeply, inextricably opposite those of the buyer. That buyer and seller are in competition, in a zero-sum game. That there can only be one winner in the customer-seller struggle—and we all know who that is supposed to be.

This is not an isolated quotation. Here’s another, from the website of a Sandler licensee.

Prospects are inherently motivated to get as much information about your company, your competitors, and the competitive alternatives (like doing nothing, or buying something that is completely different from your product/service). They want to see your complete proposal first…

Prospects LOVE proposals…Sales is the only profession where people are expected to give away valuable information prior to payment. The more technical the sale, the more information is expected prior to signing a deal.

Again, the assumed context is us against them. In this view, the customer’s job is to squeeze as much competitive information, and to gain as much competitive leverage from the seller as possible. The seller’s job is to withhold as much information, and to extract as high a price, as possible.

This is the ideology of the past. The world is moving toward more interdependence, not less. Suspicion is expensive—and there are greater and greater opportunities for suspicion in a connected world.

Trust is the counter-intuitive solution to suspicion. You can build trust in commercial relationships; contracts can either be defenses against evil perpetrators, or the occasion for in-depth discussions about expectations and transparency. One is expensive. One lowers costs.

In sales, the era of competing against your customer is over. We need something like Trust-based Selling™, based on a simple principle: if you consistently do what is good for your customers, you will end up creating more value than those who are solely motivated by self-aggrandizement.

And you will end up getting your fair share of that added value.

Hey! Your Company Just Turned Into a Supply Chain!

 What’s the biggest business change of our time? You might say it’s the Internet. Or globalization. Or outsourcing.

But let me make a case for something else. Something that incorporates those other ideas, but puts them all in a bigger context. Something Big but Simple.

We are moving from a world of Competition to a world of Commerce.

In the old competitive world, most business was transacted within companies, as part of a hierarchically-organized management process.

In the new commercial world, those same business transactions are happening increasingly between companies—not within them—as part of a horizontally organized commercial process.

Let me break that down:

• Business is now done between, not within, companies.
• Business is now done not hierarchically, but horizontally.
• Transactions are no longer managed within firms; they are bought and sold between firms.
• The people you transact with no longer work for you—now they sell to you.

When Tata Motors recently announced the $2500 car, the interesting fact was not the cheapness of the car, but the authors of the announcement. It was the Tata supply chain, not Tata the company, who would make the car. Tata is willing to outsource even the final assembly.

Companies still compete with each other: e.g., GM vs. Toyota, Citibank and Chase, etc. But the bulk of business transactions are no longer internal, they are external, and they are not between competitors, but between suppliers and buyers—collaborators, not competitors.  It’s not that competition doesn’t exist anymore, it’s that your company isn’t in charge of your competitiveness.  Your supply chain is.  And you have to get along with your partners to share in your collective success.

Those who persist in viewing the world through competitive lenses are marginalizing themselves. It’s a relationship world. You can’t go it alone. Those who see through collaborative lenses are, paradoxically, those who will win—not those who set out to "win" by competing.

GM no longer competes in the car business—they just add the final 10–20% of the cost structure in an automotive supply chain. The real “car business” is a whole bunch of companies, inextricably linked in a commercial web. Except for those who continue to believe their suppliers and customers are their competitors. To compete is, increasingly, to lose.

Those who work together well—those who can play in the sandbox nicely with others—are those whose supply chain will win, and them along with it. Those who still think they’re competing with their suppliers and customers are those whose supply chains will lose, dragging them along with it.

Competitive advantage doesn’t determine success anymore—collaborative advantage does.

It’s the external commercial relationships that dominate the value add in the new economy, not the internal ones.

Competition isn’t dead; it’s just not where the action is. Commerce—the ability to get along with others in a supply chain—is where the action has gone.

Hey! While you were sitting in a classroom reading about competitive strategy, your company just morphed into a supply chain!

Why Influence Is Only Halfway to Trust

I was interested to read, in the Wall Street Journal  that persuasion is taking the place of old-style command and control managemen

True—and yet only half the truth.

The author, Erin white writes:

Managers say they increasingly must influence — rather than command — others in order to get their own jobs done. The trend is the result of leaner corporate hierarchies and the erosion of division walls. Managers now work more often with peers where lines of authority aren’t clear or don’t exist.

Historically, each business-development staffer worked with a specific engineer in Mr. Martino’s group [at IBM]. He wanted to create teams of engineers to work with business-development staffers. Business-development managers feared the move might lead to confusion and missed connections. So Mr. Martino agreed to appoint team leaders to help coordinate. He says the system is working well.

"The more we operate as a global company, you’re going to be faced with dealing more" across group boundaries, he says. "It’s just the reality."

That’s the truth part: that as organizations become more global, they must get more horizontal, matrixed, and team-based.

Now here’s the half-truth part: that isn’t the half of it.

Marry globalization to business process outsourcing, and you have a massive replacement of clear vertical management not by indirect management—but by commercial contracts with third parties.

Think it’s hard coordinating business development managers in Armonk with engineers in Tennessee? Try coordinating them with an engineering subcontractor in Bangalore.

The difficulty is not just about lines of authority—it’s about horizontal, commercial, supplier/customer relationships with the companies that now handle the work you used to handle internally across those corporate boundaries—which you used to think were complex!

Handling vague lines of authority is merely a way-station on the road to globally outsourced supply chains.

Jack Welch had it half right when he talked about the need for boundaryless companies. The half he missed was to get rid of the word “companies.”

Courses on influence are indeed taking over the corporate agenda from courses on management. But it’s a half-step and change is hampered because “influence” is still chained to an us vs. them paradigm.

The value of “influencing” skills is harshly limited if they are applied only to the achievement of sustainable corporate competitive advantage. If I’m on the same team as you, I might not mind being influenced. But if I’m the outsourcing partner you’re trying to influence, in order to increase your bottom line at the expense of mine, then every attempt at influencing me just makes me more cynical about your motives.

When applied to outsiders, when we say "influence," we mean “getting you to do what I want." Until we see customers and suppliers as on the same side of the table as we are, we cannot move to trust—helping us both get what we both want.

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.

It’s a Dog Eat Dog World: Isn’t It?

My last posting—The Deeper Message of Financial Volatiilty—generated responses at The HuffingtonPost.com I also got a call from a TV interviewer, who posed the question:

How can you say competition is increasingly less relevant—it is, after all, a dog eat dog world out there—isn’t it?

This metaphor of cannibalistic canines needs a little deconstructing.

First, I think it’s pretty much only a metaphor. Outside Jack London, I doubt there are too many Donner Pass incidents in the history of dogs.

More seriously, I learned early on that if I rode my bike past a snarling, menacing dog and pedalled like crazy to stay away from it—the dog would chase me.

But—if I actually approached the dog and said, “good boy, come here,” the same dog would wag its tail and befriend me.

In my experience, this pretty much describes people too.

People often live up—or down—to others’ expectations of them. And if we can learn that about ourselves, then we have gained the keys to our freedom. We can see that we own our own oppression; that we empower what we fear. And escape it.

The parallel extends to business. If I expect the worst of my suppliers and customers, then I’ll throw lawyers at them, endlessly calculate their financial value to me, use need-to-know communications, and generally make sure I’m always in control.

At its best, this response gives us dynamics like union vs. management. At its worst, we get endemic inefficiency and cynicism.

Now add change to the equation. Decades ago, we had monolithic corporations with fixed boundaries, competing against each other. Now, as BusinessWeek describes in its August 20 & 27 cover story The Future of Work , we have something quite different:

The very idea of a company is shifting away from a single outfit with full-time employees and a recognizable hierarchy. It is something much more fluid, with a classic corporation at the center of an ever-shifting network of suppliers and outsourcers, some of whom only join the team for the duration of a single project…

The hard part for multionatinals is getting people to work well together…such pressures put a premium on recruiting staff who are globally minded from the outset…Nokia is careful to select people who have a “collaborative mindset…”

Exactly.

The playbook that business schools still teach from is the one labeled Big Monolithic Corporation—and the chapter heads are all about Competition.

The playbook that hasn’t been written yet is about the Fluid, Shifting, Morphing Entity that BusinessWeek describes—and the chapters are not about Competition, but about Collaboration—with customers, with employees, with partners.

Dog eat dog? Why? When dogs eat dog food instead of each other, and figure out how to work together, life gets better.

And in an emerging business world that throws everyone together in constantly permutating ways, that old competitive nature we prized decades ago is becoming a bit of a millstone.

Business doesn’t need, or want, competitors and competitive talents as much as it used to. The emphasis will shift from competition to customers. Business needs more collaborators. Not in order to become more “competitive” or to “win”—but to become more successful.