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“Bond. James Bond. Alliance Manager”

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/10/2013

Daniel Craig couldn’t make it, and John le Carré and Gary Oldman were also regrettably no-shows, but one of the final presentations at the 2013 ASAP Global Alliance Summit was nonetheless a very different way of looking at an increasingly common phenomenon: collaborations involving coopetition.

Using a number of stills from the recent James Bond movies to illustrate their points, as well as an engaging paper-airplane building, marketing, and buying activity to start things off, Helen Morin, global alliances director at SAS, and Scott Van Valkenburgh, senior director of global alliances at SAS, presented a number of concepts that should help alliance professionals more safely and successfully work their way through the often cloak-and-dagger world of coopetition alliances in their presentation, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Coopetition Alliances in Business, History, and Today’s Global Marketplace.”

While this presentation might have been more Quantum of Strategy than Tinker, Tailor, it got off to a great interactive start with an exercise in which a number of tables were designated “manufacturers” and given the materials (in sealed manila envelopes) to build paper airplanes. Each table group then had five minutes to open their envelope, come up with a design, and then build as many airplanes as possible, before time was up and several designated “buyers” came around to inspect their products and see if they wanted to buy.

Our table, for example, made quite a number of what we thought were very serviceable, well-designed blue paper airplanes. However, it turned out that the buyers sent to our table had been given specs that didn’t match those of our planes: they needed pink aircraft with dots on them—available at the table next to ours. Our “sales rep” bravely tried to form an alliance with that next table, only to find she had been beaten to the punch; the pink-dot planes were themselves the product of an alliance between two nearby tables, and we were out of luck, stuck with an inventory the market didn’t want.

The lesson here? “You can’t do it all alone,” said Morin. “In some cases it’s the customer who’s telling us whom to partner with.”

Other lessons included: Engage executives—some things will happen at the grassroots level, but you can’t get traction in an alliance if you don’t get senior leadership involved; align goals and expectations so that compensation will drive behavior; lay out a strategy and align everyone around it; and perhaps most important in situations involving coopetition, segment the business—define where the “ring fence” is, and where are the barriers not to cross. As Morin put it, “Yes, we’re going to compete there, but we’re going to work together in these other areas.” She used the example of Netflix and Amazon, which vigorously compete in the movie streaming/rental business, but Netflix runs its entire operation on Amazon’s platform.

As in any collaboration, Van Valkenburgh urged those involved in coopetition alliances to resolve issues quickly, because “bad news does not get better with time. If you don’t resolve issues up front, a cancerous growth appears underneath, and it will undermine and collapse the growth of the partnership.” Diffusing emotion, and establishing strong governance grounded in “principle-based decision-making,” à la the character “M” in the Bond movies, will also help when having “those uncomfortable conversations,” he said.

Finally, Morin and Van Valkenburgh had just a couple more words of wisdom from the murky world of coopetition. “When you have transparency, trust builds,” Van Valkenburgh said. And: “If you spend your time fighting over the breadcrumbs instead of opening the bakery, you’re not going to have a lot to eat.”

As of this writing, we could neither confirm nor deny that the presenters’ next ASAP talk will be entitled “Skyfall: The Spy Who Allied with Me.”

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