What’s Your Company’s Appetite for Coopetition?

I frequently perform printed media mashups — I read more than one book simultaneously.

Currently I am reading John Kaos’ Innovation Nation and Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing.   The two books complement each other and got me thinking about coopetition, working with your competitors.

Howe  gives many examples of how crowdsourcing, open innovation, and open development work.  His book presents an excellent view on how communities can function to create new products or improve older ones — some of these examples are case studies about some of the most admired products and interesting companies of our age (Apple, and P&G) or exciting up-and-comers like Threadless and iStockphoto.  Note:  one thing many people forget, part of any open community could and most likely does consist of direct competitors.

My personal bias is toward what Innovation Nation calls “guarded openness” (Appropriately, Kaos credits military futurists John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt for this term.)

Over the course of my career, I can point to several instances where being open and working with competitors gained my company (or my clients) a huge advantage over those same competitors.  I’ve been involved in the creation of industry standards groups, events which brought together all the competitors, speaking engagements, and even parties co-hosted by direct competitors.

Think about the music industry — as a fan, don’t you love it when your favorite artist does a duet with another of your favorite artists?  Or maybe someone you’ve never heard of before and you get introduced to a new, enjoyable sound?  Each of the artists is competing for your concert ticket dollars and the money you have to spend on music.  But together, they might be able to produce something you would be even more interested in parting with your money for.

When I start working with a company, I need to assess the level of comfort the team has toward openness.   Here are some ways to assess your company’s comfort level with openness.  Would you be able to say…

  • Your CEO knows the CEOs at the competition.  (Not just knows of, knows, personally, as in shares meals with.)
  • Your boss is speaking on a panel at a trade show and offers to share slides ahead of time with the other panelists, including one of your direct competitors.
  • There is a standards committee for your industry. And you belong.
  • The feeling is that there is room for all in the industry.  It is not a winner take-all industry.

Then there is the other side of the fence:

  • You go head-to-head at a sales level with the competition regularly.  Contentiously.
  • Trade shows are considered opportunities to scope out the competition and team members attend with non-company-specific badges to see what they can find out.
  • Your boss is worried about introducing about a new product at a trade show because someone from a competitor might be in the audience. And hear you.
  • You’ve been warned to never send a presentation to anyone, because they might get their hands on it.
  • You’ve never met your counterpart at any competitive company.  And, if you have, you don’t tell anyone inside your own firm.

When you read through the second set of scenarios, don’t they start to sound ridiculous and paranoid?  Actually, it may be the norm depending on your industry.  Some industries are more open than others, just as some companies are more open than others.  Kaos makes the point as well that openness can also stem from the size and age of the company as well.  It can be ingrained within the company’s DNA, and driven by the corporate structure.

Today, many companies are very focused on community, sharing with their customer base.  They may be sharing ideas with their customers, working closely with their customers on new product ideas.  If you are truly an open company, you are just as likely to be doing these things with competitors as your customers.

What’s your company’s appetite for working with the competition?

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