How collaboration beats competition as a strategy for success

Collaborative advantage

Starting out in my marketing career in the late 1980s, when Thatcherism, Yuppies and “Loadsamoney” were dominating the headlines, the concept of Competitive Advantage was instilled as the central tenet of marketing strategy.

We endlessly looked for that magical sustainable competitive advantage to beat the competition (who were usually defined by some archaic production-led classification by Nielsen). I am sure some brands enjoyed “good times” as they captured the market’s attention for a few years, but for many that competitive advantage was difficult to sustain over time within your own resources.

As a marketing leader it has become increasingly apparent to me throughout my career that sustainable success was contingent on something greater than just being better than the observed competition. Whether it was developing brands, organizations, or individuals, it was necessary to provide stronger foundations and greater resilience by seeking the support and commitment of others to the cause. Many eyes on an issue avoided marketing myopia; many arms around a topic provided enhanced creativity and collective will to succeed.

In his new book, Collaborative Advantage – How Collaboration Beats Competition As A Strategy for Success, Paul Skinner challenges the notion that Competitive Advantage is the key organizing principle of strategy.

Competitive Advantage fails to acknowledge its own short comings in terms of perspective on competitive threats and the concept that anything can really be sustainable if a rapidly changing world.

Moreover, the concept does not fully explain many new collaborative business models, particularly those where sharing is common place and ownership of resources is limited.

Skinner, using examples from his own business experience with Agency of the Future and Pimp My Cause, a social enterprise matching marketers with good causes (and promoted through The Marketing Society), as well as extensive research and interviews, advocates that Collaborative Advantage better reflects our changing business environment.

He does not get carried away with the “wonder’ of the digital age and how it has transformed business; indeed, Skinner describes the need for “Surthrival” as organizations attempt to grow stronger in a world of complex risks.

Without a new model of Collaborative Advantage, he suggests that we risk facing diminishing returns on our limited resources.

Organizations need to leverage the resources and capabilities of a much broader eco-system. This exponentially increases creativity and innovation, provides alternative routes to market and expands the stakeholder base.

By aligning more with more people and more partners behind a common purpose you create a more resilient strategic model.

The book describes a five step approach to creating Collaborative Advantage called “Outside In”: finding a common purpose; creating opportunities[to engage]; engaging participation; iteration and acceleration; and building partnerships. Each section is described and illustrated with helpful examples and then Skinner usefully summarizes the key points and poses a strategic audit for your organization with a series of questions in a practical workbook style.

As a marketer and now a strategic consultant, I have always felt that bringing the outside world into any organization is a fundamental part of our role. But how many of us have spent too much time trying to find that “needle in a haystack” – the sustainable competitive advantage – and ending up with some words on a brand strategy chart that really offer little more than a twist on what already exists in the market place? Our world is more connected than ever before, so let us ensure that we open our eyes to the world of possibilities and invite others to join us on our journey through effective collaboration. Paul Skinner’s book, Collaborative Advantage, is a very useful and practical contribution to that perspective.

By Stuart Wilson, Associate Partner at Food Strategy Associates, Fellow of The Marketing Society and member of the Pimp My Cause Advisory Board