Bob Markman, a talented financial advisor of my acquaintance sees Japan entering a lengthy period of decline. His logic: China will become an economic superpower and the other “Tiger” nations will continue to thrive. Since the rest of Asia has long memories, Japan’s actions before and during World War II will lead to the rest of Asia excluding it from joint ventures and regional development efforts.

Time and the global economy will reveal Markman’s ability to prognosticate. I thought of his analysis after reading that both CompuServe and America On Line initially chose to deal with Netscape, largely spurning Microsoft. Not very long ago, Microsoft announced its entry into the on-line services business, describing cut-throat pricing and bundled interface software. This led to jitters throughout the on-line services industry, and a great quote from Steven Case of AOL: “Tell Bill Gates this will be his Vietnam!”

I thought of Markman’s analysis again now that both CompuServe and AOL have signed deals with Microsoft. It appears America On Line follows the lead of America On Earth, which counts Japan and Germany among its close allies.

Some of us admire Microsoft’s aggressive business practices, others decry them. Regardless, I wonder if it will find itself in the position Markman predicts for Japan: will companies base future alliances on the memory of Microsoft’s past tactics, or will they follow the American model, pragmatically allying with former enemies?

The same issues apply on an individual level – to you and your business relationships, which usually follow the Asian model. Adversarial relationships can last a long time.
People care deeply about the programs they sponsor and adopt. People view projects, programs, vendors … stuff they’ve bought into … the way they think of their pets (hence “pet project”) or maybe their children. They … we … become personally involved, and sometimes lose perspective completely.

In the heat of the moment it’s easy to focus on winning this one issue, losing track of the larger context in which you’re operating. When you choose tactics to win that damage your relationships in the organization, you’ve reduced your ability to win the next point. Eventually, the process of winning will result in your complete inability to function, and you’ll have to move on to the next jungle, where you can start your practice of slash-and-burn agriculture all over again.

So here’s some practical advice: choose antagonistic relationships (the word “enemy” is so melodramatic!) carefully.

Whenever you’re trying to make a point, win an argument, sell a program, or whatever, you’ll encounter resistance from one quarter or another. I suggest the following 5-step approach:

1. Take a deep breath and decide how important it is to you. Is it worth your full effort, or does it make more sense to simply make your case and live with whatever decision happens?

2. Exploit your relationships with key decision-makers, guiding them to the “right” perspective, which is to say, yours. If you haven’t built strong relationships yet, get going. They’re more important than all the logic you can muster.

3. Build a relationship with those taking the opposite side. Try to win them over, if not to your opinion than to understanding you’re taking a legitimate, professional position. Create mutual respect.

4. Find something to create the appearance of a compromise – something to give your adversaries in the process. In other words, make it look like both sides win … to your adversaries, not just to outside parties.

5. Don’t be a sore loser. If it doesn’t go your way, don’t walk away grumbling about office politics and plotting your revenge. This is an opportunity to show some class. Take advantage of it. Buy the winner lunch and figure out how you can jointly sponsor the next program.

And how should you deal with your adversaries in the future? Opinion: holding grudges is a mistake. Forgetting character is an even bigger mistake.