Saturday, April 30, 2011

Wishing a competitor ill

A developer client asked two firms who often compete for work to provide the fee that they would charge to design a major project in China. One firm gave a very low fee and the other, a much higher one. The client asked the firm with the higher number if it wanted to match the other firm’s lower fee, but the high-bidding firm refused to come down, not because it didn’t want to do the project, but because it wanted its competitor to have to do the work and lose money in the process, weakening its ability to compete for other, more desirable opportunities.

In Chinese martial arts, one strategy involves using competitors’ energy against them, letting them exhaust themselves by not resisting their attack. That same strategy seems at play here, with two competing architectural firms engaged in a kind kung-fu-like competition to see which would succeed in attaining a commission. The Chinese client clearly thought that both firms could do the project, so their capability or capacity to deliver didn’t seem decisive in determining which firm to choose. Instead, it came down to price: which firm would do it for less.

Fee bidding may seem straightforward, but in kung fu competition, paradox often prevails. The client’s wanting the two firms to propose fees immediately put all three in an oppositional stance: not just the two firms against each other, but the two firms against the client. That may seem like a smart thing for a business-oriented and price-sensitive developer to do, but as often happens, fee bidding is anything but smart. In an architect-client relationship, in which collaboration is paramount, starting the interaction in a competitive and overly cost-conscious way seems unwise. It’s like arguing with your heart surgeon over the price of the operation before going under the knife? You can do it, but you might live to reap the rewards.

Here, the client’s wanting the work done as inexpensively as possible led the one firm to decide that it did not want the work, giving a high bid to ensure that the client would select the other firm or pay dearly if not. The other firm obviously felt otherwise and so it seems that everyone won: the client got low fees, the one firm won the bid, and the other one avoided what seemed like a conflict-ridden commission.

There remains, though, an ethical issue here, not in the fact or the outcome of this competition, but in the intention of the firm not selected in wanting the other firm to lose money on the project. Such a desire goes beyond a healthy sense of competition to an unhealthy antagonism and animosity. The martial arts involve not just physical competition but moral conditioning, training not just the body but also the mind and spirit. As a result, kung-fu shows us how to compete ethically as well as effectively, how to defeat an opponent without hurting them, knowing that the desire to harm another only harms one’s self.  

It may not seem as if any harm had been done here. Neither the client nor the selected firm need know about the other firm’s ill will. Maybe the two firms had tangled before in ways that led to such acrimony and maybe the one firm had acted in ways in the past that deserved the enmity of the other. But none of that matters ethically. Wishing harm on another, however well deserved it may seem in the eyes of an antagonist, represents a loss of self-respect. Morals matter more than money when determining who wins or loses in life.    

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