Competition comes first: in order for collaboration to work

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” So said Steven Wright, whose unique sense of humour is as insightful as it is creative and a bit outré. That, though, makes a serious segue into a bothersome question for many collaboration inclined professionals. In fact, I find that it is easily is one of the most divisive questions among those who understand that collaboration is an inevitable part of the way business works today. I see it as the primary collaboration tension that does not come with an IKEA type solution: where all the bits are there and with just a bit of your time, you’ll have it all.

Reconciling collaboration tension sometimes confuses the business strategy. The aim of the strategy must have competition at its core. Well-established thinking considers that, in order to compete, there has to be a functional coming-together of all components that a business relies on. What can transpire in a subtle way is the emergence of drivers that are not picked up by any one discipline in particular. While consumer tastes may be picked up easily by marketing and sales professionals through direct feedback, the emergence of systematic disruptive elements, such as collaboration, may not be as obvious. In fact, the question is – who in any particular organisation/business would be responsible detecting these disruptive elements? In a new environment of a constant change, this task should not be charged to any one individual; it must be a team effort. Collaboration between people is what allows us to obtain insights that are possible in a post information economy. Collaboration is what allows us to get insights, not just the information we need to do our job.

It is this view about collaboration that is needed for any business strategy to work as a competitive mechanism. If collaboration is not valued as a source of potential and instead reduced to a glorified form of teamwork, then the strategy will miss out significantly. Collaboration is not a ‘nice’ thing to do. It is a prerequisite for strategies in an era of business that has to create value which is far more in tune with customers’ mythology. American biologist and theorist E.O. Wilson commented that there are two forces that shape us: the individual and group factors. He claimed that in any group of people, it is the selfish individual who will always prevail over altruistic individual. However, he also points out that the altruistic group will win over the selfish group. This is in part a core of the collaboration tension that many businesses have difficulties resolving. The fact is that business needs both; self-interest as well as shared interest. It needs competition but also co-operation and collaboration. What may be a dichotomy on one hand is in fact a source of potential for innovative value creation that can be part of the comparative advantage of any business.

It pays to take note of how early human organisations are not too dissimilar to what we can see in a modern organisation; small bands of people collaborating and competing. A competitive strategy of a business is sound enough only if it offers capacity for emergent factors to add to it. If a strategy works then it works because it capable of drawing advantage from all factors affecting the marketplace. For instance, increasingly we see that consumers are buying into the story of products and services that are result of a collaboration between two or more producers. In fact, looking through history we can easily see that some of the most enduring products are precisely those that have come back as a result of collaboration (even when that was not the intention). A mixture of ingredients is what makes for a compelling story of a product or service/experience. This is more so today than ever before in human history. So, it should not come as a surprise when these same people go to work and swap their “consumer hats” for “employee hats”, and expect to emulate the products or outcomes they admire. Consumption habits feed into production habits. If we like an experience as a consumer, then we often try to create the same experience for others. If collaboration was the key to what we found pleasant as consumers, we are then attracted to create the experience for others by being collaborative. What we need to understand is that the power of collaboration can make our business relevant, competitive and thriving. Otherwise we can get stuck and can continue playing the tiring game of catch up.

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