Why it's OK to change the rules

Click to follow
Children have long been used to taking their ball away if a game is not going as well as they would like. Now, it seems, business can do much the same.

Academics Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger argue that in the modern fast-moving world changing the players, the rules, the boundaries - or even the game itself - is perfectly understandable. It does not even have to be at the expense of others. Thanks to a concept they dub "co-opetition", everybody can be a winner.

The roots of this notion - which is an amalgam of co-operation and competition - lie in "game theory", a concept that is said to provide insights into the way people behave when confronted with a range of options, or when subjected to pressures.

Mr Nalebuff, a professor at Yale, and Mr Brandenburger, a professor at Harvard Business School, in their just published book, also called Co-opetition, say the value of the approach to business is that "it focuses directly on the most pressing issue of all: finding the right strategies and making the right decisions". Plenty of books look at creating the right environments for making decisions and others concentrate on how to implement decisions, but they believe there is "still a need for guidance in identifying the right strategy to begin with".

However different their aims may be, the execution is familiar. Early on is a diagram illustrating a basic hypothesis; in this case, the "Value Net", which introduces another new word, "complementors", to describe people who are neither exclusively competitors, customers nor suppliers.

The idea is that each situation has components that can be adjusted to enable companies to break out of the traditional win or lose mind- sets. It does happen, particularly in hi-tech fields, where Intel, for instance, benefits from the success of Microsoft. Even mature industries are seeing co-operation agreements, like the oil additives tie-up just announced by old adversaries Shell and Exxon, as the way ahead.

But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that for some the metaphors of war and the playing field will continue to hold sway. It is all very well to suggest that financier Bernard Baruch's remark, "You don't have to blow out the other fellow's light to let your own shine", is more pertinent than Gore Vidal's "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail", because the former made more money. But is Richard Branson ever going to sit on the board of British Airways?