Under normal circumstances, business leaders within the same sector compete with each other on an almost instinctive basis. However, there are signs that – in at least one industry – that reflex will have to transform into something rather less adversarial.

In the latest report from the KPMG/Ipsos Retail Think Tank (RTT), experts forecast a particularly difficult 12 months ahead, noting that 2017 “won’t go down in the UK retail annals as a memorable one, simply because the challenging narrative barely made a detour”. By the RTT’s reckoning, that narrative will continue into 2018 – during which business leaders in the retail scene “will be working manically behind the scenes, reinventing the ways in which they deliver that all-important customer experience”.

According to the RTT, an inflation jump and ongoing pay stagnancy will lead to a squeeze on disposable incomes, with rising prices for foods driving down demand for non-foods. “This ‘perfect storm’ of factors,” it says, “may even see the industry reach a pivotal point in 2018, with increased levels of defensive consolidation and creative collaboration – as well as the inevitable fallout of casualties – the likely outcome in the ongoing fight to survive.”

In other words, retail chiefs are going to have to learn to set their competitive instincts aside and put more effort into working together for the long-term health of their industry. What kind of qualities will enable business leaders to successfully make that transition from competitiveness to collaboration?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “This is a really difficult question for leaders. When you’re competing for a share of a diminishing market, the opportunities to collaborate similarly decline. You are, in effect, pitching for the same customers. However, before you get to the selling stage of the equation, there are windows for collaborating on more generic, technology-based initiatives that look at questions such as, ‘How do we improve the customer experience for everyone?’ Those types of pre-‘go-to-market’ collaboration could yield significant benefits.

“Within the collaboration itself, parties should apply normal rules of the road: set clear goals for what the participants expect from the initiative; pay attention to the power dynamics within it; put in place systems that will recognise and offset any imbalances, and engage in activities that will create trust.”

In James’s view, that last point is probably the most important. “Above all,” he notes, “the collaborators must appreciate that these relationships are built over time – you can’t go straight into a collaboration and expect it to work immediately if you don’t put in the groundwork for common understanding. It is also vital to ensure that everyone understands the limits of the collaboration, so that no one is under the impression that they have offered anyone else undue commercial assistance.”

He adds: “This is a timely subject, as the Institute will shortly publish two papers on collaboration that it has compiled from thoughts that emerged at roundtable events and workshops that we ran last year. Keep an eye on our website for details of those papers as they emerge.”

For further thoughts on effective teamwork processes, check out these learning resources from the Institute