Co-opetition: Cooperation and Competition

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Authors: Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger

Publisher: Profile Books

Reviewer: Goke Ilesanmi


The only thing that is constant in life is change. This means one needs to embrace it to avoid being swept away by its tide. Like I said in my earlier article “Employing Modern Language of Competition”, the old concept of competition interpreted as enmity is now outdated. And one of the textual “evangelists” of the modern concept of competition is this book entitled “Co-opetition”. It is written by Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger, who are professors at Yale and Harvard respectively. Nalebuff and Brandenburger are pioneers in the practice of applying the science of game theory to the art of corporate strategy.


Nalebuff graduated from Oxford University and is now the Milton Steinbach professor at Yale School of Management. He is also the co-author of the book “Thinking Strategically”, written with Avinash Dixit. Nalebuff is a principal of the Law and Economics Consulting Group. As regards Brandenburger, he graduated from Cambridge University and is now a professor at the Harvard Business School. He is the author of many of Harvard’s bestselling strategy cases.


The authors say they have devised a practice-oriented model to help you break out of the traditional win-lose or lose-win situations and that many corporate organisations have been adopting the strategies of “co-opetition” to change their business approach and enjoy the benefits of win-win opportunities. Nalebuff and Brandenburger submit that this text is the first to adapt game theory to the needs of chief executive officers, managers and entrepreneurs. They add that the text offers you a new business mindset, a strategic way of thinking that combines competition and cooperation.


The authors stress that though often compared with games such as chess or poker, business is different as people are free to change the rules, the players, the boundaries, even the game itself. Nalebuff and Brandenburger educate that the essence of business success lies in making sure that you are in the right game. They say actively shaping which game you play and how you play it, is the core of the innovative business strategy laid out in this book. The authors assure that this text will change the way you play your game of business.


According to them, there is nothing as practical as a good theory. They add that a good theory confirms the conventional wisdom that ‘less is more’, stressing that a good theory does less because it does not give answers but does a lot more as it helps people to organise what they know and uncover what they do not know. Nalebuff and Brandenburger submit that a good theory also gives people the tools to discover what is best for them, and “that was our goal in writing Co-opetition”.


This text is segmented into two parts of nine chapters. Part one is generically labelled “The game of business” and covers the first three chapters. Chapter one is entitled “War and peace”. According to the authors, the traditional concept of business and by implication, competition makes the whole thing look like a war manifesting in the form of “outsmarting the competition, capturing market share, making a killing, fighting brands, beating up suppliers, locking up customers”, etc. Nalebuff and Brandenburger educate that under business-as-war, there are the victors and the vanquished. These authors expatiate that the typical result of a price war is surrendered profits all around. They cite the instance of the US airline industry that lost more money in the price wars of 1990-1993 than it had previously made in all the time since Orville and Wilbur Wright.


Nalebuff and Brandenburger reflect that as regards a new mindset, business is cooperation when it comes to creating a pie and competition when it comes to dividing it up. The authors say, “In other words, business is War and Peace. But it’s not Tolstoy – endless cycles of war followed by peace followed by war. It’s simultaneously war and peace. As Ray Noorda, founder of the networking software company Novell, explains: ‘You have to compete and cooperate at the same time’. The combination makes for a more dynamic relationship than the words ‘competition’ and ‘cooperation’ suggest individually.”


Chapter two of this text constitutes the title chapter, as it is entitled “Co-opetition”. Here, Nalebuff and Brandenburger submit that if business is a game, then who are the players and what are their roles? They explain that there are customers and suppliers, and you would not be in business without them. The authors add that naturally, there are competitors. Nalebuff and Brandenburger say there is one more group of players, often overlooked but equally important, that is, those who provide complementary rather than competing products and services. These professors also look at the concepts of thinking complements; the value net; surfing the Net; playing multiple roles, etc., in this chapter.


Chapter three is based on the subject matter of the game theory. Here, Nalebuff and Brandenburger ask the question of how much you can hope to get in a game. They educate that the answer does not depend just on the size of the pie to be divided, notions of fairness nor how well you play. These business management experts submit that what you get depends on your power in the game as well as on the power of others who have competing claims on the pie, adding that power, whether yours and/or others’, is determined by the structure of the game.


In their words, “Game theory shows how to quantify this power…Game theory sounds tailor-made for the analysis of business strategy. But, historically, there’s been an obstacle preventing the world of business from embracing game theory. The problem is that academics and businesspeople speak two different languages: equations versus experience….”


Part two is thematically woven together as “The parts of strategy” and contains six chapters, that is, chapters four to nine. Chapter four is entitled “Players”. According to Nalebuff and Brandenburger here, the question of whether you want to be a player is the obvious question to ask yourself when you consider entering a game. They add that however, the answer is rarely obvious because it is easy to misjudge what it would really be like to be in the game. Nalebuff and Brandenburger explain that the reason is that anytime you enter a game, you change it. The authors stress that you do not have any choice in the matter.


They assert that it is a new game because you have joined the cast of players. Nalebuff and Brandenburger say people often miss this effect and therefore fail to think through how their coming into a game will change it. As these experts put it, “They think that what they see is what they’re going to get… Generally, if you want to play, you have to pay. The cost of becoming a player can be cheap when, for example, it means quoting a price over the phone. It’s more expensive if you have to pitch an advertising or marketing campaign….”


In chapters five to nine, Nalebuff and Brandenburger analytically X-ray concepts such as added values; rules; tactics; scope and readiness for change.


Stylistically, this text is an embodiment of uniqueness. For instance, the conceptually paradoxical and structurally blended title realised from the words “Cooperation” and “Competition” underscores the linguistic and conceptual creativity of the authors. The structurally blended nature of the title also arouses readers’ curiosity and interest to read the text. Though handling a very logically technical subject matter, Nalebuff and Brandenburger employ a simple choice of words (diction) embroidered with good word combination (syntax).


The conceptually technical areas are contextually understood due to detailed illustrations and didactic analyses. What’s more, these authors employ literary/classical allusions to achieve conceptual reinforcement and ensure that readers’ understanding is enhanced. There is also the use of graphics to achieve effective non-verbal communication that reinforces the textual communication of the book.


Though the title of the book arouses curiosity, it would be better for an illuminating subtitle to be added to it to achieve immediate explanation or amplification of the major title which is a neologism, a new word.


On the whole, the text is a classic. It is a must-read for those who want to achieve business success through knowledge of modern business flexibility, creativity and profitability. It is simply a conceptual pathfinder, a trailblazer.


GOKE ILESANMI, Editor-in-Chief/CEO of https://www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng and Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is a Certified Public Speaker/Emcee, (Business) Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker, Career Management Coach, Renowned Book Reviewer, Corporate Leadership Expert and Editorial Consultant.

Tel: +234(0)8056030424; +234(0)8187499425

Email: info@gokeilesanmi.com.ng; gokeiles2010@gmail.com


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