The relationships we establish, in business, are very complex and constantly changing.
We have relationships with colleagues. At some point, we or colleagues may choose to go work someplace else—even our competition. We don’t, at least I haven’t, stopped those relationships. Most of the time, there is intense competition—I want to beat them, just as they want to beat me. But we still value and maintain our relationships.
Our customers know we sell to their competitors. We take that as our “right,” and customers understand this.
Our customers work with our competitors. Sometimes a competitor may be the preferred solution in one part of the organization and we are the preferred solution in other parts of the organization. Sometimes our customers choose competition, either because their solution is better or because we may have been outsold. But we seek to earn the business back at some point in the future.
Organizations that may have been competitors at one time or in a certain space, may become collaborators at another time or in a different space.
I don’t know when I first encountered the word “co-opetition,” but is seems to be an appropriate word for managing relationships in today’s complex business world.
Some choose to deal with “competitors” as the enemy, shut them out and ignore them. This stance seems unreasonable and untenable, given today’s realities. We can learn much from them, about them, and even with them. And, after all, both Sun Tzu and Michael Corleone said, “Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.”
We can choose to embrace “co-opetition.” This doesn’t mean we won’t compete fiercely. One of my very favorite calls was about 25 years ago. A prospective customer decided to have a “bake-off.” It was a huge deal, they invited the top executives from our competitor, I was the key executive from my company. The customer had us in the same room, we were asked questions then the competitor was asked the same questions. It was a 3 hour meeting. Each of us competing fiercely, trying to win the customer’s business.
That evening, at the airport bar, we noticed our competitors sitting at a corner table. We joined them, laughed about the meeting, joked with each other. We shared different perspectives of what was happening in our shared markets, commiserating on some issues, having different opinions on others. But we learned a huge amount from each other. I suspect we each became better—both as a result of this very unusual “bake off,” and from spending time laughing and learning—I know I and my team did. And I suspect what we each learned, ultimately, was helpful to our customers.
It seems in today’s world we need to embrace and learn from differences and differences in opinions, whether they are from our competitors, our customers, or even differences within our own organizations.
We need to recognize how quickly things change and how today’s competitor may be tomorrow’s collaborator (or owner).
We need to trust that while we may compete, people who come from value and integrity can manage the boundaries of our relationships with integrity. And for those that have no integrity, we can isolate them—more likely their lack of integrity will cause them to be isolated. But, my experience is there are more people that come from value and integrity.
It’s is a different world and each day becomes more different. Who we compete with, how we compete, where we collaborate, how we learn and grow changes every day. We have to be open to those opportunities, recognize the appropriate boundaries, and manage these relationships with integrity—and humanity.
Afterword: For those interested. My team won the deal! The CEO of the competitor called to congratulate me, saying that beers were on me the next time we saw each other in an airport—something I was glad to pay.