How to Create More Effective Teams through "Co-opetition"

Jan 24, 2019

By Sue Dyer

A growing trend in business is “co-opetition”—a buzzword coined to describe cooperative competition, where even companies who are fierce competitors learn how to work together. Two well-known examples of co-opetition are cartels and trade associations. But we see the principle in practice elsewhere: Microsoft and Apple are building closer ties on software development; Peugeot and Toyota are creating a new city car for the European market. Basically, companies work in partnership with each other to enhance both businesses and to create a competitive advantage. I've been calling this phenomenon "strategic partnering” for over 20 years.

I've come to realize that most people, teams, and organizations settle for a very low level of cooperation when they develop strategic partnerships. They could significantly improve their results by pushing the envelope of what's possible. Let’s explore how this works.

Over the hundreds of times I've done the following exercise with teams: I ask people to arm wrestle. The objective is to get as many points as possible. One point is scored for each touch to the table, no talking allowed. We have 20 seconds. Most pairs don't get any points, but the highest any pair has scored is 200 points. How can there be such a huge difference? Our objective, remember, was to get as many points as possible. In order to maximize the number of points we would need to cooperate (as the high scorers did).

So why doesn't everyone do just that? Because we all know how to arm wrestle. And when we arm wrestle we are adversaries. We are supposed to try to win, or at least not lose. Because we see ourselves as adversaries we fail to see what might be possible.

Here are the three levels of co-opetition:

Level One: Cooperation
Here you realize that you can optimize the number of points you can earn by cooperating. You begin to cooperate. It is one point for you and one point for your partner, alternating back and forth to make sure the points are evenly distributed.

Level Two: Collaboration
You have a breakthrough; you realize that if you touch just your arm (or just your partner’s arm) you can earn even more points. So the two of you begin to collaborate. You move your arms up and down together and double the number of points you earn.

Level Three: Co-creation
This is working well, so you decide to really put your muscles into it and see how many points the two of you can rack up. So you begin to co-create points by jointly moving your arms very rapidly up and down (just barely off the table each time). The result? You quadruple the number of points that you earn.

The three levels of cooperation are available to all teams. Here are five tips for pushing cooperation to the next level:

  1. Clarify roles and responsibilities. You must be very clear on what you are trying to achieve by working together. Clearly identify each party’s roles and responsibilities for contributing to the achievement of those objectives.
    Strategic partnerships break down when expectations become misaligned or
    either party doesn't know what to expect. When people truly work as a team, the lines between departments or organizations become blurred.
  2. Commit to being fair. The foundation of trust in a strategic partnership is a commitment to fairness. If you know that no matter what issues pop up you will always be fair with one another, then trust will grow. When one side feels it has been treated unfairly trust begins to erode. When all team members have confidence that they will be treated fairly, there is nothing they cannot explore and accomplish.
  3. Get off your “buts.” Judgments impair our ability to communicate. They often sound like "Yes, but that's not what I want", or, "Yes, but that will never work!" When you hear "yes, but" in your head you have stopped listening. Worse yet, you are mentally working on your "rebuttal". So in an instant, in your head, you've just became an adversary. Instead of judging, listen to the other people closely and try to understand where they are coming from and what they need.
  4. Create account-ability. It is important to ascertain whether or not the parties feel the strategy is working. Make sure the partners have the ability to tell each other the truth in a manner that does not damage relationships. A monthly scorecard can offer anonymous feedback that allows team members to see where they stand with each other and on the objectives.
  5. Plan for Disagreements. Nothing happens exactly according to plan. There will no doubt be disagreements along the way. What is important is how the team deals with those disagreements. Do members work together to find new ways of doing things? Or, do they damage engage in finger-pointing, damaging the relationship so that team members no longer want to work together? Creating a conflict resolution process before problems occur will provide a process for team members to work things out before the situation becomes untenable.

Try talking with your team about the three levels of cooperation. I’m sure you’ll find that no activity that can provide you with a better return on your investment.

About the Author(s)

Sue Dyer is president of OrgMetrics, a consulting firm specializing in nonadversarial approaches to preventing and resolving disputes. She is author of the award-winning book Partner Your Project and is the first woman in the U.S. to head a major collective bargaining unit for the construction industry. For more information, visit or call 925-449-8300.