The compelling collaboration case.

Why we need to rethink our attitude to competition

*Image via Lagadere Sports, Photograph: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

When I first told friends and colleagues that I was setting up my own consulting business back in late 2008, I typically got two reactions. The first was to check if I was serious – it was the height of the financial crash at the time. But, I told them, I was.

The second was to ask whether I would focus on retail or on hospitality clients, not surprising really, as those two industries had made up most of my career. I told them, neither – I wanted to work with all kinds of organisation.

All except one of the people I spoke with, thought that was a bizarre approach to take, but 12 years later, I’m pleased with the choice I made for three reasons: it never gets dull; I’m constantly exposed to different ideas and new ways of thinking; and it allows me to bring a completely different perspective to an industry insider. In a way, without me realising, I suppose it has become my competitive advantage.

Right now, the main insight I would offer from that broad perspective, is to collaborate with your competition.

Hear me out…

Many sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic this year: heavily constrained or even shut down by the restrictions, watching revenue collapse as demand has fallen away. Some have shut up shop and gone into hibernation, but some have found new ways to reach and serve their customers, and an innovative few have developed entirely new offerings and captured whole new customer groups.

But beyond that, many business leaders have been hit pretty hard on a personal level as well: having to make really tough decisions to close operations and let go of loyal colleagues; deal with investors, and creditors; and manage capricious customers and twitchy suppliers; all with added pressures of working at home, shielding family members, school closures, and so on, and so on. And now, after brief respite, we seem to be heading back towards that burn-out zone once again.

In times like these, it’s natural to adopt a “last man standing” attitude. If we can just hold on longer than them, when things open up, we’ll have survived, and we can go after their market share.

But it doesn’t work like that – just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do markets. If and when demand recovers, it will drive new types of supply. Acquisitive investors will pick up good assets and look, with fresh eyes, at the reopening opportunity. Start-ups and phoenixes will rise to the challenge, with renewed finances, energy and drive, while many of the wounded survivors will still be limping along.

Look back at any previous recession – the biggest shakeouts always come during the recovery.

One solution to get stave off this threat, is to embrace collaboration, partnerships, and alliances. There is strength in numbers, and there is enormous value in getting a bunch of wise heads in a room and working through ideas and solutions. In the non-profit world for example, and make no mistake, charities can be as just as competitive as businesses, many organisations are, through necessity, working together intensively with former rivals, to impressive effect.

Both your supply chain and your competitive set will have ideas, assets, and capacity, just as you do. Sharing the pain, pooling the assets, fundamentally rethinking the ways you could work alongside and with each other: more innovatively, more efficiently, more effectively. All this could be transformational - not just for how you get through the next six months, but for how you collectively emerge at the other end.

Just as it’s easy to adopt the “last man standing”, it’s easy to brush off this potential to radically change your mindset: “They won’t collaborate. They can’t be trusted. There’s no point.” Or, “We already do.” Do you? Really?

Because that was before. This is now. The world has changed. And everything has to start somewhere, so why shouldn’t it start with you, today?

When I first set out on my own, I was as competitive as can be. I had no interest in mixing with other consultants who would steal my ideas and start pitching to the same prospects. But that one person who didn’t think my approach was bizarre? He was and remains a consultant, working in the same space, with the same types of customer.

A year later we collaborated on a proposal that turned out to be the highest value either of us had ever sent out, and it was accepted. Ten years on, and we’re still friends. Back then, the collaboration started with him. These days, it usually starts with me. I recently co-founded an industry group for the US-based Society for the Advancement of Consulting, and in a couple of weeks, I’m presenting to and sharing my ideas and experiences, with “rivals” from all over the world at their annual (virtual) convention.

And I’d dare to say, I’m far better at what I do because of it.