With us or against us?

We all know competition in markets is the best way to improve things. It drives down prices for consumers, drives up standards and ensures the best win. Where would the Olympics be without competition? Collaboration in markets, on the other hand, leads to anti-competitive practices such as cartels, monopolies and blacklisting.

An alternative view is that collaboration is the best way to achieve good results. Sharing knowledge and working together is how all the best discoveries have been made. Where collaboration leads to transparency, competition leads to secrecy, and a race to the bottom, as well as firms and individuals bending or breaking the rules to win. And where there are winners, there are also losers.

Which of these world views is true – or are they both right? The natural tendency in business is to not tell people how you have achieved things, to try and steal a march on your competitors. There is nothing like healthy competition, as the saying goes. But when does competition become unhealthy? Extremes of competition can be detrimental, but there are lots of grey areas in between where this may not be true.

An ex-colleague of mine used to say that he didn’t see the point of going to industry meetings or writing for industry magazines. “You’re just talking to the competition,” he would say, “and what’s to be gained from that?” There is, of course, much to be gained from talking to the competition. Conferences and formal events, where we get a window on the way inspiring practitioners think, are an obvious bonus. Sharing experiences and solutions – the ‘how did you cope with this?’ scenario – is also good. I have learnt a lot over the years from casual conversations with friends and associates, and this is also what makes SGD Cluster Groups so useful and popular.

Conventional wisdom is to keep information that leads to a competitive advantage to yourself in business. Clearly there is no advantage, mutual or otherwise, to telling competitors about a great opportunity that you have just spotted. But what about the many techniques and processes that give us competitive advantages in business? Is there any benefit in sharing this information with others? Surely anything that gives an advantage to our competitors, is a disadvantage to us?

Counter-intuitively, I think that conscious sharing of best practice is an advantage to us. An obvious example of this is the ‘altruistic mechanism’, whereby if we do something that is good for others, we will benefit at some future point when they do the same for us. But I would go further than this. The development of new techniques and processes takes time and investment, and so tends to make those innovators more expensive in comparison to others. We know that the benefit to the client is worth it, and that this outweighs the slight increase in cost. So it follows that sharing best practice is not just altruistic – it’s actually in our interests to raise everybody’s game.

There is another aspect to collaboration that is vital to garden designers. We are mostly sole practitioners or small practices. The projects that we work on vary and often involve challenges that are beyond the skills of the individual. An architect I know says that he is only as good as the team he can assemble on any project, and that is true for garden designers too.

RHS Chelsea is a perfect example of this. Most gardens have mixed elements of structures, water features, artworks and planting that are beyond one person’s skills – that is the joy of them. Chelsea is, of course, fiercely competitive (just watch people’s faces on camera when they are told they have got a Silver- Gilt medal when they wanted a Gold).

Darren Hawkes’ garden at the Chelsea Flower Show 2017

But as I walk down Main Avenue during build-up, I see people lending equipment to each other, sharing plants, even helping on each other’s plots. And best of all, despite the passionate nature of the rivalry, there is an atmosphere of shared endeavour. So, despite my occasional misgivings, perhaps Chelsea is, after all, an example of the industry at its best: competition and collaboration in perfect balance.

[This piece was originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal in June 2019 as part of the ‘Just Saying’ series]

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