Cooperation between competitors serves everyone well, since there is usually more than enough business to go around. By adopting a “cooperate and graduate” style, even competitors can become partners. Clearly, there are practical and legal limits to cooperation between industry competitors, but having limits doesn’t imply there should be no cooperation at all.
Take the case of the then-US Air Force’s newest air superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor. Boeing and Lockheed-Martin teamed to develop and then manufacture the advanced aircraft rather than compete amongst themselves. A second team, Northrop-Grumman and McDonnell-Douglass, also teamed up to compete for the contract. Both teams partnered for several reasons, among them that it spread the risk out among many business units, and a team approach also ensured that components could be manufactured and assembled in as many Congressional districts as possible to shore up support on Capitol Hill. A more cutthroat approach would’ve been for a single company to make the pitch to the Air Force, and if they won the contract, they’d have eliminated perhaps several major competitors from the market. However, both teams knew the Air Force was concerned with maintaining the aviation industrial base, and developing new technology is also fraught with risks, so both companies elected to “cooperate and graduate” on the F-22 project so they could minimize their risk and maximize the chance of getting the contract. Now, the Air Force got their fighters, had some confidence that the industry will stay healthy, and both companies in the winning team live to fly another day. Together, the teams of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing were more successful than either would’ve been on their own.
Making it Happen
What’s more, while a multi-billion dollar contract certainly had the top executives involved in setting the agenda, think of the cooperation and teamwork required at the first line supervisor level at both companies. Engineers and program managers had to make hundreds of decisions per day about what information to share and how to achieve their company’s leaders’ vision while not compromising future projects. Lockheed-Martin and Boeing were allies in the F-22 project, but they were still competing in the same market for other contracts. That kind of teamwork at the lowest levels requires both a commitment to supporting the first line leaders (and “foot soldiers”) by headquarters and first line leaders’ commitment to protecting their own company’s interests at the same time. That kind of “tight rope” only works if first-line leaders are given clear guidance and entrusted with the responsibility to get the job done by their leaders. People have to be able to make decisions and not “wait for guidance.” The more complex the situation, the more important first-line leaders are to the success of an enterprise.
Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with