Competing with Competition and the Wisdom of Starlings

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Photograph from Flickr. See the incredible original gallery here

Once upon a time, in a land not-so-far-away, a gaggle of economists thought very hard about the best way to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. They came up with some pretty smart answers: Among other things, in an attempt to increase the level of innovation, they identified competition as a useful spur and set up a system that legally protected competition, and rewarded those that won.

Except – as with all economic models – the idea is based on an approximation of reality. And while that approximation might be quite close at one point in time, the longer the model stands, the further from reality the model is likely to go. And more than that, the longer a model stands, the more likely people are to treat means as ends in themselves. In this case, competition was identified as a way of bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number, not as a goal to be pursued for its own sake. This is exactly what Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby argued earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review.

With all the focus on competition, policy makers and organisations have forgotten, or overlooked the value of collaboration. In his excellent TED talk, Don Tapscott outlines his vision for an open society, based on collaboration, sharing, transparency and empowerment.

While the potential benefits for business are massive (as Tapscott’s Gold Corp example demonstrates), there is a lot of work for businesses to do to get to a place where they can make a difference. Rick Lash has argued that businesses produce the behaviours they reward; and at the moment, they reward employees who work in silos and will turn the world upside down to achieve the objective they have been set. Lash argues that a totally different competence is needed to build a collaborative organisation – one that rewards teams forsaking their own objectives for the sake of the broader organisation. He offers the example of how Apple were able to develop the i pod far more quickly than Sony developed their MP3 Walkman, because they recognised the potential of the product for the company as a whole far outweighed the projects they were working on in individual functions. Beyond that, a collaborative organisation might genuinely commit time to crowd-sourcing and incentivise employees for proactively look to connect disparate strengths in the organisation. Most importantly, organisations would put their best ideas and their biggest problems in the public domain, acting as a focal point and moderator, rather than a secretive, cannibalising black box.

The shift in mindset is massive, the legal infrastructure for it to work is nearly non-existant; but it looks to be the right model – the means to our ends for our time. And it’s on its way (see the UK government’s brave decision to make all scientific papers free to view)! If we can build half the enthusiasm for collaboration that we have had for competition over the last century, the possibilities are massive.

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