Three former teammates seated themselves for lunch. Each set down a plastic tray on the black tabletop. One placed a stack of napkins in the center for all to use. Another tossed in flatware. This wasn't the fanciest place or the best food, they all agreed, but it was quick. The restaurant was no more than a five minute walk from any of their offices. It had become their place to meet.
"Good to see you guys," said the woman. She unwrapped three straws and popped them into their drinks, each in turn, hers last.
"Whoops. I forgot to grab condiments," said the fellow who usually had that job. He stretched over to a nearby, empty table and swept off the salt and pepper shakers.
"Are we getting lazy?" the first man asked, the one who had brought napkins. "We've let more than a month go by without talking."
Two years ago, they had worked together for a large company. Each had left for a better offer in a smaller company. Now they headed technical service teams. As leaders, they kept busier than they'd been before. But they kept in touch.
It didn't take long for them to trade shop talk about how they were doing, the advances in technologies, the contracts they'd won and lost, projects they'd barely gotten done, and other projects in which they'd succeeded beyond what they'd dreamed.
"It's no secret that the government is putting out a combined contract," said one fellow as he picked up a napkin he'd brought. He wiped his mouth.
"Yeah, everyone in the business has been reading the request for proposal," his friend agreed. He cut another piece from his steak. "That's the biggest contract of the year so far. We're bidding on it, of course. I'm in charge of our proposal team."
"Some of the industry giants are going to compete." The woman took a sip from her glass. "They mentioned it to me last week. It's big enough to attract them. They're putting together bids."
"Ugh." The fellow who'd brought it up set down his food. "That means none of our companies stand a chance."
"Speak for yourself." Next to him, his former teammate chewed on his steak. He folded his arms and leaned back before he paused to conclude, "We'll underbid everyone."
The other two stared at him for a moment. They glanced to each other, then down to their lunch plates.
"You can try," the first fellow ventured after a moment. "But do you meet all of the requirements? My company is a few positions short, I think, or we have to send a couple of our folks to get certified in skills we don't have on board. I wouldn't mind us teaming up on a joint proposal."
"Are you crazy?" His friend opened his mouth in a burst of laughter. His teeth gleamed. "Why would I team up with you? We're competitors."
"Yeah, but we could team up to compete against the bigger companies."
"But then I couldn't win the contract for my company, could I? Even in your best case scenario, we'd have to share the spoils. The benefits of winning wouldn't come totally to me."
"That's right." Slowly, he nodded. "That's partnership, I guess."
They ate in silence for half a minute. The fellow responsible for condiments got up to get sauces he'd forgotten. At that moment, the woman turned to her remaining companion.
"Is that offer you made to him open to my company too?"
"Of course. You're at such a high-end company, I didn't think you'd be interested. I should have asked you first, shouldn't I?" He shook his head and scowled at himself.
"There are eight expertise areas listed in the contract," she said. "It occurs to me that your company has the best expertise in two areas. You really do. We're a leader in three of them, I'd say. And by that I mean we're better than even the big companies. You know it's true."
"Yeah, although the big ones are pretty strong at everything."
"But not they're not best. They won't be better than us combined for this bid."
"The government might not trust an offer that doesn't come from a big company." He sighed.
"Maybe. But we can have the best qualified bid. That's something." Her eyes lit with excitement. "Even if we lose, the agency will see our expertise levels. They'll probably ask one of the big companies to outsource work to us. After all, we're leaders in key areas."
"Yeah, even a loss could be a win." He had to acknowledge that everything she said was right. "Are you up for a working lunch on this tomorrow?"
"I'll draft a bid to review."
A month later, when the proposal deadline arrived, it turned out that the company with the lowest bid was deemed under-qualified. They did not show the proper areas of expertise. Their proposal was dismissed in the first step of the evaluation process. In contrast, the combined effort of the two smaller companies won the contract. Their proposal survived even a challenge from the bigger companies and a rebidding process.
As the contract was awarded, the executive who had lost his bid received a demotion.
"You were a fine engineer," his boss said as they walked from his former office to his new desk. "But you don't seem ready for an executive position. You're not the competitor we're looking for."
"I'm more competitive than anyone!" he complained.
"Really." His boss eyed him skeptically. "Then why didn't you get us on the winning team?"
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