Collaboration v Competition This time it’s personal!

Firstly I would like to define and clarify the terms:

Collaboration means to work with another or others on a joint project
Competition means a rivalry between two or more businesses striving for the same customer or market.

So, on the face of it, the two seem mutually exclusive. One focuses on working together, the other, working against each other. Simple really; or is it?

Collaboration is a growing development in business today and has a multitude of forms, from the simplicity of a partnership to the complexity of a multinational corporation. Collaboration between team members allows for better communication within the organisation and throughout the respective supply chains. It is a way of co-ordinating different ideas from numerous people to generate a wide variety of knowledge. It is in this context that collaboration can trade punches with traditional models of competition. In fact, collaboration can punch well above it’s weight.

If I may draw an analogy or two from the natural world. If you have ever seen tuna working together to “herd” and group together a shoal of bait fish, say herring, then you will see collaboration working instinctively – on both sides. The tuna work “together” on the edges of the shoal and gradually squeeze them into a “single” mass of potential food. The herring, on the other hand, swarm closer and closer together using a natural instinct and (scientists now think) their ability to react rapidly in synchronisation with the fish closest to them; communicating even it is thought, in order to present “themselves” as a much larger, more imposing prey. A huge mass of individuals working together to fend off the threat of attack posed by the tuna. Each individual herring is therefore not only less likely to be picked off individually but the combined efforts of thousands of herring gives the impression of a single, multi-facetted, more daunting creature.
The tuna, by virtue of millions of years of natural selection and evolution, also work as some form of team; gradually squeezing the mass together to make the “target” more uniform and manageable. The eventual outcome may be inevitable but the point is that if it did not improve the life-chances of the herring then they would not continue to adopt this behaviour – the herring may even have gone the way of the dodo. Equally, if the tuna’s tactics where fundamentally ineffective then they too would have found another tactic or another prey.

We still have much to learn about the nuances and marvellous intricacies of the natural World and I am certain that some form of group collaboration, even incorporating some unknown form of communication, exists that we are, as yet, unaware of. Essentially, if it did not work over millions of years of evolution then they simply would not do it.

And so, to the World of humans and, more specifically, to the World of human competition – the business World.

We have been blessed with a complex intelligence. We also possess untapped depths of intuition and a natural compassion. We have the ability to understand the “greater good” in rational, logical terms. In fact, we can consciously “decide” with every action that we undertake whether to think and work with a greater good in mind, or not to. Unfortunately we have a tendency to adopt a mentality that starts, and all too frequently remains, with us as an individual. We all too frequently adopt an attitude that basically operates as “What’s in it for me?” Can you imagine a herring, or a zebra, or a wilderbeast ever saying to themselves.

“Mmmm, herding eh? Seems like a good idea but what’s in it for me? I think I will go my own way this season lads.”

Or the lions saying

“Yep, I know that working as a pride has worked well so far but I fancy doing things my way today. You go and catch it and I will wait around here and see what I can pick up.”

I suggest that neither would last long.

So, back to us. Collaboration; what’s in it for me? I will offer 3 key benefits:

You get to benefit from the experience of older, wiser, savvy, creative, knowledgeable, experienced individuals (in the respective venture). Access to skills and wisdom that you as an individual may not possess at that moment in time. In essence, access to experts.
You have the chance to add your own particular experience to the team; to show your own skills and virtues and to exchange freely ideas and effort.
You can present the “team” as a single, powerful, holistic entity containing all the necessary attributes required for the opportunity in hand. You may even be able to actually work with a competitor to share the spoils. Neither of you being able to win the business individually but as a combined force you have (at least) twice the power.

Collaboration is not new, so why is it not more popular?

I think it is reflective 2 things – condition and climate or more specifically the human condition compounded by the economic climate. We want to protect what is “ours” – our knowledge, contacts, intellectual property, etc. We also have far more complex communication and relationship needs and behavioural techniques.

We have a natural tendency to ask “What’s in it for me?” before we consider “What’s in it for us?”

I see this as a reflection of basic values and virtues, specifically being trust, honesty and authenticity.

Trust – the only way to know if you can trust someone is to trust them. We can deploy all the communication skills training, research, intuition, business credit checks etc etc but at the end of the day, we will only know whether any individual is “worth” trusting once we actually commit to doing it.

Honesty – again, unfortunately, it is all too often only after the event do we get to see the actual honesty of those that we are collaborating with. Not just little pockets of rhetoric, but actual, open and honest team-working with the overall group benefit in mind,

Authenticity – do they, have they in the past, walk their talk.

I have been the “victim” of the shyster before. Maybe you too have fallen for a scam in the past; be that the smooth-talking, high pressure time share rep while you are on holiday or the charlatan business “pareto partner”. By that I mean one that talks a great game in the initial discussion but who actually only puts in 20% of the effort to making the project come alive and takes 80% of the returns. These people, unfortunately, are everywhere – no values, no ethics, all “what’s in it for me?”

It would be remiss of me, then, to finish without offering at least some advice from my own experiences.

Do your research – check out the social collateral as well as the business collateral of any potential partner/team before committing to a collaborative project. Use all and any of the social media tools available, check out their testimonials, and look into their business history. Do NOT simply accept the rhetoric, enthusiasm and marketing blurb
Make sure that what you are getting is equivalent to what you are giving. Put value onto you your respective skills and attributes and be open about it before commitment. If you have donkeys years of experience and a shed load of contacts then make sure that what you are getting in return for your sharing these yields an appropriate value. You can always weight the respective returns from the venture against the specific effort that you contribute.
Write it down! Get an Agreement drafted that you all sign up to specifying the nature and duration of the project/collaboration, expected activities, potential returns, duties and obligations. Do NOT just go on trust (even if you have some previous experience with the partners involved). AND have mutually acceptable “escape” clauses. Better still, work within a well established legal co-operative framework. The formal Co-operative business model is well established and has worked well for many, many years. So why take time and spend money creating your own agreements when there is very likely to be a co-operative business model to suit your collaborative venture. And the good news is the co-operative movement provides lots of free advice and support to get you started. There are many examples of successful co-ops in this issue of the3rdimagazine so you don’t have to take just my word for it. And the3rdimagazine is itself a member owned co-operative so you can test the water by getting involved here.
Work with your values. If they have a product/service that you do require in order to work for a “greater good” then always consider whether you can actually work with these people. Do they share your values? Do they walk their talk? Have they a record of successful collaboration? Your brand is your reputation and in a collaborative project, individual reputation may take a back seat to the “brand” of the project team. Make sure that they are harmonious.

If you manage to find reputable, trustworthy, authentic collaboration partners that ACTUALLY trust and respect you (and vice versa) then it is an extremely valuable proposition in today’s economy and one successful venture can lead to another. Suddenly you have many business facets and resources without compromising your own.

Acting in collaboration may mean that you are sacrificing the whole prize for just a portion of it but at the end of the day, 20% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

This article was published in the3rdimagazine on 4 July 2011

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