Strange Bedfellows? Get Over It

by Shaun Stewart | 10/2/07 3:34am

When we think about politics or business, we tend to think in terms of allies and enemies. This is only natural; it's a comfortable way to think about the world. There are allies who you can always implicitly trust because they agree with you and there are enemies who you never have to consider because they are always wrong or against you. However, this is an outmoded way of thinking: There are no longer allies and enemies. There are only partners and non-partners.

This endeavor-by-endeavor (or issue-by-issue) way of thinking is the way for individual actors to achieve results that they never could on their own. In today's world, it is not permanent alliances that benefit companies and political groups, but rather creating and leveraging coalitions of different groups that can advance the agendas of all players. For example, can you imagine liberal, secular progressives working with evangelical Christians? It may sound like the set-up to a bad joke, but on two of the most serious global issues of the day -- global warming and the genocide in Darfur -- younger evangelicals are some of the strongest supporters of traditionally liberal policies on controlling carbon emissions, reducing energy consumption and sending international peacekeepers to Darfur. A savvy liberal problem solver should reach out to evangelicals on these issues.

Are liberals and evangelicals backing the same policies for different reasons? Certainly. Evangelicals want to protect the environment because they believe we have a biblical responsibility to protect God's creation and that America, as a Christian nation, must lead that charge. This reasoning makes many secular liberals -- who believe America was founded on humanistic, democratic mores -- very uncomfortable. That is largely irrelevant, though, as the two groups are not saying that they are ideologically compatible allies, but rather that they are partners on a few select issues when they agree on the same policies.

Many will attempt to to explain this phenomenon away as an anomaly, or as a case of "strange bedfellows." However, these strategic partnerships are the rule, not the exception, in today's world. In effect, we are in the post-strange-bedfellows era. A group or person who is diametrically opposed to you on one issue may be your closest partner on another.

Similarly, in business, a company perceived as a rival one day can help you maximize profits the next. Take, for example, Boeing's new 787 "Dreamliner" airplane. It incorporates so much new technology that it would have been nearly impossible for Boeing to finance all of the research and development itself. Instead, it created a global partnership of competing aerospace firms. These other firms put up the money to research and build certain components of the plane. Boeing still makes the bulk of the profits on the planes, but the partnership allows the company to defray many of the upfront costs of a new plane design, while also allowing smaller companies to get a piece of the action in the high-end jet market -- a market they could otherwise never get in due to high entry costs. Are most of these firms Boeing's competitors? Yes. But again, it doesn't matter. At this particular juncture, their partnership allowed all of the firms to increase their profits by spreading both the risk and the profit from the 787 venture among themselves. This was not subcontracting or mergers, but rather fully independent firms working with some of their rivals on a project that none of them alone could have produced.

Some will call this new approach to problem solving opportunistic. However, it is really people willing to see past their differences to work together on things upon which they agree. In business, it is the ability to get new products to market faster, cheaper, and more efficiently. After years of ideological posturing and gridlock, these are things which we can all agree are good for our country and our world.

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