Competition vs. cooperation or where is the translation industry heading?

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In this year’s ELIA Networking Days Focus for Executives which just ended in Crete, somebody had the brilliant idea of a book exchange. Participants were encouraged to bring one of the business books that changed their lives as leaders. Unfortunately I totally overlooked to bring the book I had had in mind for this exchange (which was Leadership and Self Deception by The Arbinger Institute, for the record – if anyone’s interested in reading it). However, after two days with top executives from many other companies in the industry, both small and large, I know that the perfect book for the exchange is not a self-development or motivational/inspirational book, but…. THE HUNGER GAMES.

Yes, it is a young adult dystopian novel by American novelist Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games universe is a dystopia set in Panem, a country consisting of the wealthy Capitol and 12 districts in varying states of poverty. Every year, children from the districts are selected to participate in a compulsory annual televised death match called The Hunger Games.

Following teenage Katniss Everdeen through a series of challenges as she is forced to fight to death against fellow teens, I was drawn to a compelling conclusion that her struggles match what all of us are forced to face every day in our business lives: fierce competition against peers. We know each other, we rely on one another, we even get to be good friends, only to come to a certain moment in our lives when we need to face the ugly truth that it is either us or the others who will succeed in a business universe driven by money, numbers, rankings, margin, turnover, growth rate, operational leverage, EBITDA, M&As.

While listening to Tuyen Ho from Welocalize getting pretty technical on Mission, Vision and Execution (and I have to admit that her presentation got me thinking pretty hard on what my role as leader of my company is and how to get there), I had just another revelation. This fierce competition game we are all playing, where we look at the numbers and hope to achieve better scores than others, is clearly leading us towards a classical paradigm called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the translation industry this is where competitors cannot resist the temptation to win more work by undercutting each other on price. Simple mathematics shows that they end up worse off than if they had kept their prices steady (read more on this topic here).

This concept has been at the back of my mind for quite some time now, and I have tried to analyze how the different scenarios of solving the dilemma affect me personally. When confronted with it, will I take the cooperation approach? Will I betray? (More about self-betrayal in the Arbinger Institute book on leadership I have recommended above).

In a cooperative scenario all players win in the long term. As Paul Sulzberger puts it: „The repeated games approach is the underlying raison d’être of institutions such as merchant guilds and professional associations – an approach where players compete but gradually get to know each other, begin to appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses and begin to find ways to co-operate to their mutual benefit”.

With this in mind, the second day I decided to join Neil Payne’s presentation on Customer Experience as a Growth Strategy. It was an excellent opportunity to assess where we are in terms of CX and what each person (whichever its role in the company) could do to have a positive impact on the Customer Journey. Got some great ideas as well (thank you Neil for a wonderfully designed and executed workshop!).

It is funny that as my mind seems to wander around metaphors and literature lately, rather than in the frantic world of numbers and margins, I have easily come up with just another deep-thinking „pearl”: if the translation industry was an ocean, then I would like my company to be one of the fluffy exotic-colored small fish that are so cute one would wonder if their role in the ocean is purely aesthetic or they have some other obscure evolutionist purpose. And not one of the grey menacing-looking predators that are so big that all others run for their life when they see it. Because no matter how big a fish you are, there’s always a bigger one lurking around the corner to eat you. And your next predator might not even live in the ocean!

But enough with the metaphors. My point is that once again I have found that industry events are a great place to meet your competition, make friends, even create „alliances”, learn, reconsider your old ways, get energized and start working as soon as you get home. They are a great place to assess the state of the industry, get a feel of what’s coming next and where the others are going and most of all… relax!

Thank you all for being there. You are such an inspiration for me!

See you next time

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