Competition Beyond Production: The World of Strategic Agility


Most people are confused about the differences between production and competition. They see them as opposites, which means that, since production is productive,  competition must be destructive. What people fail to see is that competition and production are the opposite in methods but not in their goals. Properly understood, both must be productive in building up positions while working in very different realms.

What's the difference?

Competition exists everywhere that comparisons among alternative choices take place. In the external competitive environment, this is a choice of responses to external changes. Production exists wherever objects are transformed to create more valuable objects. Competition and production work together to produce value, but they demand very different skill sets and methods. Production requires strategy, but competition requires strategic agility.

Production works using a proven set of methods that transform raw materials into products or services, that is, changing objects into more valuable objects. Competitive methods work by winning support, discouraging opposition, and adapting to changes to win a competitive comparison. Production methods work on objects while competitive methods work on people. The more efficiently we produce objects, the more value we can offer in competition with others. The better our competitive skills, the more support our productive skills will gain amid the alternative choices.

Complementary But Opposite Skill Sets

2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu described the realms of the nation and the army as two opposite but complementary components of survival. The nation, run by the ruler and his administrators, was the world of productive: farming the land and making objects. The army, run by a general and his commanders, was its competitive counterpart, competition: defending the land and creating order. Survival depends on both components working together, understanding each other's role, and using very different rules. Managing production and internal operations is very different than decisions about competition and external maneuvers.

The secret is knowing when to use the methods of production (linear thinking, process planning, problems solving by division) and when to use the methods of competition (adaptive thinking, expert decision-making, and problems solving by innovation). We go into this in more detail in discussing our training, but the chart below offers a quick summary of the differences.

The Critical Differences

Competition Production
Advancing Positions Shaping objects
Exploring and experimenting Designing and organizing
Adaptive thinking Linear thinking.
Networked relationships Hierarchical structure
External, chaotic environments Internal, controlled environments
People competing People cooperating
Most people making decisions Most people following procedures
Anonymous, unattained resources Known, available resources
Event-based responses Predetermined steps
Factors details into larger picture Breaks processes into finer details
Unique, custom solutions Duplicate, standard products
Adjusts to environment as a whole Controls part of environment
General improvement in position Well-specified end result

Creating Resources for Each Other

Productive and competitive methods create the resources for each other in a constant cycle. The better our competitive skills, the more resources we capture to use productively. The better our production, the more resource we produce for use in external competition. Competition and production are closely tied to each other, but they require different skill sets. In the Sun Tzu's strategy, they are defined as "complementary opposites." Both are necessary. They work together. But you must understand how they are different.

The problem in recent decades is that our knowledge of production and training in linear thinking have greatly overshadowed our competitive skills and we receive. Fortunately, there is a growing interest in the types of strategic skills that people need on the front lines of competition. Fortunately, we have the Sun Tzu's strategy of Sun Tzu to guide us in building our competitive perspective and sharpening our decision-making reflexes.