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Co-opetition in a Connected World – Our Approach to Business Partnerships

Co-opetition describes how competing organizations work together with gracious professionalism by putting collaboration first and competition second. The concept is rooted in Game Theory and is evolving as the new way of doing business. Our business partners at JLS are disruptors in their field and revolutionize HR and organizations with innovative and groundbreaking solutions. Because in a connected world we are only as good as our connections.

Are you a stalwart business partner for us? Let us shape the world of work together!

I usually write about various topics related to Agile transformations and HR Agility. Today, I want to talk about something slightly different– something that has the potential to be highly rewarding, but that is challenging at times: Co-opetition.

What Is Co-opetition?

Co-opetition or coopetition (sometimes also spelled “coopertition” or “co-opertition”) describes cooperative competition or how competing organizations can collaborate with gracious professionalism while honoring friendly competition.

It means that individuals, teams or groups will still be competitive, but they will also help and assist others along the way and collaborate for mutual benefit and growth. Businesses of all sizes are applying this concept in increasingly innovative ways – both at an inter- as well as intra-organizational level. By operating in a collaborative network, they can take decisions faster and adapt to new trends and customer bases with more ease.

The idea of cooperative competition is rooted in Game Theory and has been around since the early 1900s. With industry boundaries breaking down, co-opetition has recently gained a great deal of attention and is now considered the new way of doing business.

Our Approach

I have engaged in this kind of collaboration ever since I got into business consulting two decades ago (I just didn’t know it was called co-opetition). I have been part of many such group efforts and it allowed me to collaborate with and learn from amazing people and companies. It was/is always so much more rewarding to engage in a mutually beneficial partnership rather than fighting some turf wars.

I brought this approach to JLS. Not only because it aligns with my own values and business ethics, but it is also a natural fit for an agile business in a disruptive field. We collaborate with companies and individuals who are competitors to varying degrees: Some have a vertical, some a horizontal market focus, and others are new players in the market. Together we engage in joint contract bids and service delivery as well as ground-breaking innovations.

Each one of our partners is unique in their own rights and brings different – complementary – strengths to the table. We are collaborating openly and transparently. We push each other to be more productive by working together, while also respecting and safeguarding everyone’s competitive advantage. This allows us to deliver higher value to our clients and communities.

Admittedly, co-opetition also bears risks and can lead to anything from potential economic or service delivery failure to opportunistic behavior of a partner in pursuit of its own success or fame that will reduce the partners competitive advantage. But despite all the risks, there is increasing evidence of collaboration among competitors in the for-profit industry.

A recent Virgin guest blog sums it up this way: “While competition suggests a win-lose situation […], collaboration can be a win-win strategy because it permits the sharing of information and ideas. Achieving repeated innovation in this context is easier and faster than in a secretive, hyper-competitive environment because collective intelligence is an unrestricted resource that can be shared openly to spark ideas and create change.

Five Key Lessons

Co-opetition is challenging and the promise for success needs hard work. Over the years I have learned many things about creating and maintaining thriving partnerships. Although there are dozens of tips, here are my five key lessons:

1. Consider your clients & find a partner with complementary skills

When evaluating a potential business partnership, think about your clients and what type of partnership would benefit them. Look at your own weaknesses and what you need help with. The understanding and prioritization of critical success factors can help you assess their relative importance and develop improvement plans and partnership opportunities. Then seek trustworthy partners with complementary competencies.

2. Align ambitions and build on trust

People and organizations are complicated and have different drives. You need to understand what your partners’ ambitions are and consistently set expectations and working agreements with one another. You don’t need to agree on everything and you can be radically different, but at the same time your sense of what you value and core believes must align. To make it work, you need the same kind of commitment to a common cause without keeping score.

It’s important for business partners to have clear agreements. But legal documents are insignificant if one or both parties do not respect the values and honor code underlying any successful partnership. Or in agile terms: Collaboration and trust over legal & contract negotiations.

There is no formula: Rather than developing a system, you have to develop a partnership mindset and continuously invest into the relationship. That requires trust and – like any agile leader will tell you – starts out by showing more trust than you feel comfortable with. But if you don’t feel the other party is trustworthy, make small steps and evaluate if you want to invest further into that partnership.

3. Make it mutually beneficial

It goes without saying: Partnerships should be mutually beneficial. Both sides need to gain something worthwhile from it. Of course, sometimes one party is giving more while at other times they are clearly on the receiving end. But the overall partnership must be on equal terms with both parties participating.

It cannot be a one-way stream: For a co-opetition to work it must be “collaboration first, competition second”. If one party is in it to gain a competitive advantage only for themselves at the expense of the other party it does not work.

4. Don’t ignore red flags! It’s okay to walk away

Like any relationship, a business partnership holds a great deal of promise. However, sometimes it doesn’t work out – and that is alright. Don’t stay in a partnership if you believe it’s no longer viable. It is better to end the partnership and regroup than to force something that is not working. If something has you on edge, pay attention to it – no matter if it is well into the partnership or during the negotiation phase.

And certainly, don’t feel obliged to enter into a partnership that is “forced” upon you by a client or the other party. If you feel uncomfortable with the way the partnership has come about, consider walking away. There is no need to be pressured into it.

5. Don’t get discouraged by a bad experience

Chances are that not all partners will live up to this honor code. It is hard, when that happens – especially when you held that partner in high regard. A bad experience will throw a long and dark shadow on existing or potential partnerships – but you cannot give into that sentiment. Instead stay determined to get back on track and don’t let one bad experience stop you from investing into (potentially successful) partnerships. Especially since cases like that are the minority (at least in my experience).

Most partners are amazing to work with and together we can deliver greater value than we would have done separately.

Gracious Professionalism & Agile

There is something said for building friendly bridges than working in opposition, even if it takes knowledge and hard work to foster a business culture which is truly collaborative. It goes without saying, co-opetition goes hand in hand with gracious professionalism – something we could all do with.

But, we are in the business of helping organizations to live up to agile values like honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness. So, it is up to us to live up to that standard too – even or especially when it gets hard.

By emphasizing the value of others, and respecting individuals and the community, we can learn from each other, be stimulating and mutually beneficial. Co-opetition produces innovation and involves learning and teaching. It is about competing always, but assisting and enabling others when you can. Treat one another with kindness and respect.

Finding that perfect balance between healthy competition and meaningful cooperation can be difficult for teams to achieve, but when it happens – when true co-opetition comes into play – it’s the “sweet spot” for team success.

Or as ScienceDirect concludes: “By collaborating with its competitors, a company can build new capabilities and gain better leverage on its current ones, as well as boosting its brand and […] increase the overall value for its own customers.

Are You A Business Partner for Us?

In a connected world we are only as good as our connections – and our partners are rock stars: Like us, they are disruptors in their field and revolutionize HR and organizations with innovative and groundbreaking solutions. We actively shape the future of work and HR – and we believe we are stronger as business partners than alone. And together, we help organizations embrace business and HR agility.

We at JLS are committed to live up to agile values in everything we do and every interaction we have. We want our partners to know what they can expect from us and they appreciate who we are and what we stand for. That is why we strive to lead the way with integrity. And for us that means: Honesty, consistency, reliability, and a strong moral and ethical code.

If that aligns with your own honor code, please feel free to contact us and see how we can partner up and shape the world of work together. My team and I are looking forward to exploring new opportunities with you.

Yours, Fabiola Eyholzer

About Fabiola Eyholzer

Fabiola Eyholzer (SPC, CSPO) is an expert and thought leader in Lean | Agile People Operations – the contemporary HR approach for the age of disruption. Fabiola is a seasoned Management Consultant and key players in various industries seek her expertise in Business Agility, Human Resources, Compensation & Performance Management, Operations & Processes, and Strategy.