Strategic cooperation among competitors can result in big gains for each firm and better projects for clients.
I hadn’t heard of “coopetition” – a contraction of cooperation and competition – for a while, but it has come to mind several times lately, as I have listened to some recent conversations. The obvious ones have had to do with politics, where our nation has become radically polarized. There seems to no longer be a middle ground or any attempt to compromise. The last two people in government I remember embracing the notion of cooperating, even though they held competing views, were Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.
Applied to our professions, coopetition refers to cooperating, or collaborating, with a competitor. I’ve suggested to a few clients that, for any number of reasons, it would be a good idea to partner with another firm that, in their mind, might be considered a rival. There are a number of reasons why this could be advantageous: the other firm is geographically closer to a client that it would be both expensive and difficult to serve, they have a unique specialty that would help do the project better, they have the horsepower to actually deliver the work, and/or your firm is over-subscribed at the moment.
“Why on Earth would we want do this? They’ll steal our ideas or our people. We compete with them frequently, and they’ll learn our trade secrets,” are the typical reactions.
Rarely do I hear: “That would be really good for the client” or “We might learn something from them.”
The world, and the nature of our projects, has become much more complicated. In many circumstances today, I find firms lacking any number of key ingredients required to do the complete scope of what a client needs. But these firms feel partnering would somehow compromise their organization, its reputation or stature.
During my tenure at Gensler, we frequently teamed with other firms. We even learned that we didn’t always have to be the “design architect.” We would do project management and production, if that would serve the client best. The relationship didn’t have to be equal. Either of us could play a stronger role, while the other was in a more modest one. We could even play a subservient role on a project we had brought to the table. We had a singular filter for determining how to structure the relationship: What’s best for the client?
Though most collaborations worked extremely well, leading to productive, long-term friendships, mutual respect and, often, continued collaboration, one of them proved awkward. A firm was working on a project where the client was unhappy with the design direction, particularly the interiors. We had a strong interior design capability that could augment the other firm’s architectural skills, so the firm invited us to join the team.
Things were going fine until I got a call from the client saying they would prefer to work just with us and would like to terminate the other firm.
I said: “Let me get back to you.” I told my colleague at the other firm what had happened. He acknowledged things had been going poorly for him with the client. We agreed my firm would only take on the complete assignment if he were immediately fully paid for all work to date, along with a termination fee. I went back to the client, insisted on those payment terms, and we proceeded. The best part? We remained friendly with the other firm. They shared our attitude about doing what is best for the client.
Coopetition can reach beyond projects. When our office was in Santa Monica, we had a great relationship with Ellerbe Becket (now practicing as AECOMM), which was in a neighboring building. We shared staff members: If either of us was very busy and needed help on a short-term basis, we would reach out to the other. We negotiated a prearranged hourly rate structure for borrowing and lending and worked this way for years. We were lucky, too. Their slow periods seemed to coincide with our busy times and vice versa.
Weren’t either of us afraid the other might try to steal our staff? Of course! But we also understood it was each firm’s responsibility to create an environment and team camaraderie that bound each person to his or her respective firm. In all the years we did this, only one person left Ellerbe Becket to join Gensler. He had gone back and forth several times, and both firms agreed he was better suited, based on his talents and interests, to be with Gensler. There were no hard feelings, and our relationship continued for many years.
I encourage you, as I wish I could influence those in the public sector, to “reach across the aisle.” Keep your mind open to opportunities to collaborate, even if it’s with a competitor, to find the best way to serve your client.Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with ZweigWhite and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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