Coopetition, Collaboration, Cooperation, and Competitive Advantage

“The Cold Within” a poem by James Patrick Kinney (1932-2007)

Six humans trapped by happenstance

In bleak and bitter cold.

Each one possessed a stick of wood

Or so the story’s told.

 

Their dying fire in need of logs

The first man held his back

For of the faces round the fire

He noticed one was black.

 

The next man looking ‘cross the way

Saw one not of his church

And couldn’t bring himself to give

The fire his stick of birch.

 

The third one sat in tattered clothes.

He gave his coat a hitch.

Why should his log be put to use

To warm the idle rich?

 

The rich man just sat back and thought

Of the wealth he had in store

And how to keep what he had earned

From the lazy shiftless poor.

 

The black man’s face bespoke revenge

As the fire passed from his sight.

For all he saw in his stick of wood

Was a chance to spite the white.

 

The last man of this forlorn group

Did nought except for gain.

Giving only to those who gave

Was how he played the game.

 

Their logs held tight in death’s still hands

Was proof of human sin.

They didn’t die from the cold without

They died from the cold within.


By: Steve Little, Principal, The Disruption Lab

This poem offers a sad commentary on society. Some might argue that this commentary is reflective of the America of yesteryear, and that we have moved beyond these prejudices and self-interests. Perhaps we’ve made good progress, and I think we have. However, there are countless examples that bring into question just how much progress we’ve made. Consider our current political climate as just one such example.

While I could devote numerous pages to an exploration of our social fabric, today I will use this poem as a conceptual framework to explore industries facing existential disruptions. I’ll not name the industries; you can create your own list.

In the 1980s, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter wrote two seminal books about competition: Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors and Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance. These books were must-reads for a generation of executives and business school students everywhere. In addition to shaping perspectives about competitors and competition, Porter lays out strategies for building sustainable competitive advantages. Fundamentally, it’s about achieving above-average industry performance while capturing a larger share of the market.

About the same time, strategic planning became management de rigueur, and no strategic plan was complete without a comprehensive competitor analysis. We had to discover weaknesses to be exploited and strengths to be marginalized so that we win against the competition? In its extreme application, companies became obsessed about crushing the competition.

Part of our competitive strategy was developing, exploiting, and protecting intellectual property…the secret sauce of our success. Through patents, trademarks, service marks, and black boxes, we forged sustainable competitive advantages…at least we thought they were sustainable.

Enter digital transformation and the democratization of technology. The ability to protect and exploit a black box is becoming increasingly more difficult. Once you bring a new technology to market, competitors are quick to match or leapfrog your special sauce. The value and shelf-life of intellectual property is increasingly marginalized. I’m reminded of the Tom Peters quote, “Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.”

Incumbents of industries facing existential disruption will not survive, much less thrive, using traditional perspectives about competitors and innovation. Competitors need to be viewed as collaborators, co-innovators, and potential partners. The intellectual property you have has value, albeit diminishing, but the whole of IP across the industry can be of much greater value than the sum of its parts. Disruptive innovation in established industries benefits from new perspectives. Disruptive innovation is about growth…not just gaining a larger piece of the pie…but growing the pie. How can incumbents come together to create simpler, more accessible, and less expensive solutions? Incumbents will either find ways to do that, or like the conclusion in the poem above, die while jealousy protecting their intellectual property. It’s time for radical collaboration.


Steve is a Principal of The Disruption Lab. Prior to joining The Disruption Lab, Steve served as the Principal Consultant for the Strategic Solutions Group at InfoWorks, a regional business and technology consulting firm based in Nashville, TN. While his consulting engagements at InfoWorks spanned several industries, the majority of his work was in healthcare.​

Much of Steve’s career has been in executive leadership roles at Ingram Content Group (formerly Ingram Book Group). Over his 15 years with Ingram, Steve was part of a high performance executive team that drove significant growth in revenue and profits through innovative customer partnerships and services. Steve’s leadership was characterized by adeptly leveraging technology and building responsive organizations through organizational design and development. Steve’s business experience ranges from technical responsibilities such as operations research, business analysis, and systems development to senior management responsibilities as CEO, Chairman, and board director.​​

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