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"Cope" Coplien

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist.

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In the previous essay I spoke a bit about Toyota and Japanese culture. Japanese culture has a strong dose of what we enjoy in lesser degree here in Denmark, but which is largely absent in North America: a sense of mutual help and cooperation at a national level, fueled by an almost tribal identity, its recognition of common goals and the collective good. One practice exemplifying these attitudes is coopetition: a sense of business symbiosis carried out in a competitive environment.

Many Japanese managers carry three or more business cards; these cards often reflect vertically integrated business segments. A good Japanese professional is involved in several disciplines within his or her field, disciplines that complement each other. By sharing people across these segments, the many effectively become one.

On the other hand, let there be no misunderstanding: Japan is not a commune. Companies compete. Honda’s campaign to build an all-electric vehicle mercilessly poked fun at Toyota’s hybrid effort. But the lines between vertical integration and horizontal one-upmanship blur, and the unity of cultural identity prevails. Competition has more the feel of a game than a war.

Even on a global scale, Toyota and Peugot Citröen invested in each others’ success to build the Aygo and C1, respectively (Wikipedia, “Coopetition”). Toyota and GM cooperated in the famous Nummi plant where Pontiacs, Chevys, and Toyotas rolled off the same assembly line — a line which today produces Teslas with Toyota’s cooperation. The concept is so integrated into the Japanese worldview that there is no Japanese word that singles it out as a named concept. It is, perhaps, just expected business practice.

To figure out which camp you are in, play the Prisoner’s Dilemma game (s.v. on Wikipedia). Think of yourself as one of the players and your competitor, or another ambitious colleague, as the other. Think of a career or business decision that could benefit you in varying degrees depending on how the two of you cooperated. What would you be willing to negotiate behind the other player’s back? What would you try to convince the other player to do if you were allowed to talk with each other? Do you envision that he or she would cooperate?

If you believe that we are motivated by doing the right thing well (see The Myth of Individual Invention), the answers are obvious. It depends where you find yourself on the Maslow scale. If your career is about survival then you’re likely to take a cutthroat approach. If you are striving for self-actualization or broad contribution you’ll likely work for cooperation.

If you are part of a collective community or culture with shared values, the sense of us-and-then diminishes. That’s why Japanese managers carry several business cards and why the Toyota Production System eliminates handoffs. With a lessened sense of us-and-then, “winning” appears in a different light. Sure, capitalism and the drive to do better are key to a coopetition business. But the goals are long-term rather than focusing on the next quarter, and are more inclusive than sectarian.

How inclusive? Jeff Sutherland once gave me an interesting perspective on how to measure success. While reflecting on his career and the way that organizations should run, he said: If the team succeeds, the individual does not matter; if the product succeeds, the team does not matter; if the company succeeds, the product does not matter; and if the nation succeeds, the company does not matter.

Learn to think long-term and inclusively, and seek to raise the bar for  broader company than just your own institution.

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