Cooperation, Competition, and Conflict

A reader writes (condensed from a much longer message):
"I don't consider Sun Tzu to be a particularly useful model for modern business practice...In business we have a choice of looking in two directions: either towards our competitors...or towards our customers. My first thought would be to establish a co-operative relationship with my customers rather than concentrate on competition..."
We all want to get along and get ahead or, in your terms, cooperate and compete. We all do both all the time without even thinking about it. But don't mistake competition with conflict. When confronted with a challenge and not knowing what else to do, some fight and others run away (the "flight or fight" instinct). However, Sun Tzu teaches that both reactions are almost always WRONG. Learning competitive skills means learning the appropriate response to a situation is so that you don’t rely on blind instinct. Sun Tzu’s system is called “winning without conflict” because he teaches that conflict (that is, the fight) is too costly to make real success possible but that running away doesn't allow you to win either. Let us clarify what is really going on. Everything comes down to positioning, specifically finding positions that are successful because of the way they “fit” with others. This is not a lot different than what you are saying about cooperation, but it adds some important elements. First, all positions are subjective and relative. Yes, you want to cooperate (fit) with your customers, but your customers are constantly comparing your fit with their other alternatives, that is, their fit with your competitors. Analyzing relative positions is the subject of positional strategy. The idea that we can think about customers without thinking about competitors is self-indulgent. It doesn't share your customers' viewpoint because they are comparing you with your competitors. And it doesn't help them choose because you aren't helping them see your relative value clearly if you refuse to compare and contrast it to the relative value of your customers can get elsewhere.