For nearly 30 years, my research has asked the question What is competition? My aim has been to expand — for business scholars and practitioners alike — our understanding of the fundamental nature of strategy and competition.

Competition is defined by the relationship between its constituent parts: action and response. The two are as interdependent as day and night; they exist within the context of one another, together creating one totality.

Dual and Dueling

Competition may be conceptualized as a single unit composed of dual, dueling components. This serves as the theoretical foundation for my “pairwise” approach to competitive analytics: A firm’s resources, strategy or market position are only meaningful when examined in relation to a given competitor — competitive advantage is entirely relative.

What constitutes a strength with respect to one competitor may be a weakness relative to a different competitor. Likewise, a given strategic action — say, the introduction of a new product or entry into a new market — may make competitive sense with respect to one rival, but not another.

Competitive actions and reactions should not be executed according to a general desire simply to be “first” or “fastest.” Timing is about seizing opportune moments with regard to a specific competitor.

I first explored the dyadic, dynamic approach to competitive analysis in “Competitive Strategic Interaction: A Study of Competitive Actions and Responses,” in 1988. This marked the beginning of what has become, in the three decades since then, a well-established research topic in strategy: competitive dynamics.

The notion of interdependent rival pairs has opened the door to a range of innovative new avenues of inquiry in competitive dynamics, including competitor acumen, competitor asymmetry and relational competition. Seeing competitive dynamics grow into a vibrant realm of research within the larger field of strategy since my seminal work has been most rewarding.[i]

Eastern Roots

It wasn’t until just a few years ago, however, that I realized the roots of this work in fact extended back more than 2,000 years. For more than two decades, I’d been advancing my research in competitive dynamics, moving into the examination of such topics as the interdependence of competition and cooperation, and the reframing of seemingly paradoxical opposites.

During all that time, not once had I referred to Confucius or Sun Tzu. Then one day it occurred to me that virtually everything I’d done sprang from the notion of self-other integration — the fundamental, profoundly unifying premise of classical Chinese philosophy.

Before leaving my native Taiwan in the early 1980s, I had spent years immersed in the study of the Chinese classics. My revered teacher, Master Aixinjueluo Yu-Yun, was a nephew of the last emperor of China. Under Master Yu-Yun’s tutelage, I read the works of the most illustrious philosophers from the zenith of ancient Chinese civilization.

In that context, I learned that regardless of how complex the world may appear to be, everything boils down to reconciling opposites: to integrating “you” and “I,” the “self” and the “other.” The Chinese language is rife with such totality-producing integrations. “Conflict” is formed by joining the characters for “spear” and “shield,” for example, and the characters for “inside” and “outside” together form “everywhere.”

East Meets West  

In a moment of epiphany, I understood that the foundations of competitive dynamics could largely be traced to the very essence of Confucian thought: the search for a unifying “oneness.” Confucius’ lifelong pursuit was that of one single, fundamental truth that would bring everything together.

That quest for “oneness” is apparent in the three key themes of the canonical Confucian Four Books:

  • Overarching emphasis on “oneness” — seeking truths and principles capable of reconciling and unifying seemingly disparate elements.
  • Specific integration, or “oneness,” of knowledge and practice.
  • Emphasis on the power of “one” — a goal or unity of purpose that gives sharp, unwavering focus.

These themes have run throughout my research, I realized. Immersed in a Western context, studying Western business and making use of analytical methods typical of Western social sciences, I was bringing an Eastern outlook to my research, integrating Eastern and Western academic approaches — which are in many ways diametrically opposed.

In this revelation, I saw with clarity that my work in competitive dynamics was essentially a real-world exercise in the pursuit of Confucian unity. I had focused single-mindedly on the nuances of one profound question, and that question was at once highly theoretical and undeniably practical.

Oneness in Action

True to its Chinese roots, “oneness” is far from mere philosophical theory, and the power of “one” is much more than an abstraction. In our day-to-day lives, a clear, sharp focus on one goal or value provides a way for us to crystallize what is important, to converse with ourselves, and then to make wise, coherent decisions in a variety of contexts — whether professional, social or familial.

Such unity of purpose is a powerful tool when it comes to strategy. Business strategy is largely about making choices — in every situation of choice, there are tradeoffs that must be weighed, and priorities that must be determined. The power of “one” can help strategists think through the single unifying theme that integrates all of their corporate activities.

Warren Buffett’s single, unwaveringly simple strategic mantra — investing in stocks that he knows and understands — is a powerful example of the real-world power of “one.” Other similarly potent examples include Starbucks’ laser focus on marketing its shops as customers’ so-called “third place” (home, work, Starbucks), and Disney’s unifying, character-centric “Mickey in the middle” strategy.

Oneness for the Future

My work in competitive dynamics holds promise for the academic study of competition, and my theoretical frameworks are ripe for the integration of other non-Western modes of thought. (My work on ambiculturalism offers a start to this.)

But perhaps most importantly, this work provides a theoretical foundation for the real-world reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable. The focus of my research has been competition, but in a larger sense, my goal has been to make the world smaller — to bring diverse people, as well as a diversity of ideas, together. The future depends on one powerful, vitally important question: How can we move from “either/or” to “both/and”?

Ming-Jer Chen is author of “Competitive Dynamics: Eastern Roots, Western Growth,” which appeared in Cross Cultural & Strategic Management. He wrote the above piece with the assistance of Mary Summers Whittle.

[i] In 2018, a group of prominent strategy scholars will gather at Queens University in Ontario to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the publication of my seminal doctoral work.

About the Expert

Ming-Jer Chen

Leslie E. Grayson Professor of Business Administration

Chen is a leading authority in strategic management, a field that helps companies align corporate policies and resources with strategic priorities. He is recognized for his pioneering work in competitive dynamics — how firms compete and collaborate worldwide — and ambicultural management — how to integrate the best aspects of seemingly oppositional business cultures and practices, such as Eastern and Western, or competitive and cooperative.

Chen’s corporate clients include Merck, FedEx, Rolls-Royce and Tencent. His work has been featured frequently in global media, including ForbesThe Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, and he contributes a regular column to Harvard Business Review (Chinese). Chen’s article “Becoming Ambicultural: A Personal Quest and Aspiration for Organizations,” based on his 2013 Academy of Management president’s speech, appeared in Academy of Management Review in 2014.

B.S., National Taipei University; MBA, Ph.D., University of Maryland