Lessons on Competition and Collaboration

Nineteenth-Century scientific and economic theorists painted a harsh picture of the natural world, the Darwinian idea of the Survival of the Fittest held sway. Contrary to this Hobbesian view of nature recent scientific evidence highlights the powerful role of mutuality, synergy and coexistence. Let’s look at the lessons for businesses - they are stark.

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The science

Evolutionary scientist Elisabet Sahtouris noted that Nature fosters collaboration and reciprocity. Competition in nature exists, but it has limits, and the real law of survival is cooperation. Sahtouris and others note that contrary to the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ that a more telling description should be ‘survival of the cooperative and the collaborative.’

In her book ‘The Limits to Growth,' Donella Meadows writes that while the laws of economics drive the condition of scarcity with an assumption that we must consume, produce, compete more and more and quicker and quicker. Nature in balance models competition and collaboration. She writes:

"Economics says Compete. Only by pitting yourself against a worthy opponent will you perform efficiently. The reward for successful competition will be growth. You will eat up your opponents, one by one, and as you do you will gain the resources to do it some more. The Earth says Compete, yes, but keep your competition in bounds. Don’t annihilate. Take only what you need. Leave your competition enough to live…Some kinds of excellence rise out of competition, other kinds rise out of cooperation. You’re not in a war; you’re in a community."

Competition and conflict comprise an undeniable part of Nature, but not the predominate one - is it a mistake (or manipulation) to use Nature as a metaphor or model for human behaviour, yet only focus on one facet of it?

Collaboration and reciprocity are natural, competition and the fear of scarcity, or the you-or-me world do not allow for the you-and-me world which is full of collaborators, partners, sharing and reciprocity. How would our practices change if not centred in scarcity’s problem-based assumptions?

Winds of change

We are starting to see an answer to that question. David L. Cooperider and Diana Whitney in their book, Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking Human Organisation Toward a Positive Theory of Change suggest we shift our frame of reference from one of problem solving to one that seeks to identify the sources available in any collection of people for inspiring, mobilising and sustaining positive change.

What if we worked together with an appreciation of what gives ‘life to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological and human terms?’ It leads me to question the questions that we are positing as individuals, communities and ultimately in businesses.

Citing David Cooperrider, Michelle McQuaid has written about how each of our actions is preceded by a question. Take a very simple example: We wake up in the morning and might immediately check our email and begin chipping away at the day’s to-do list. That seems constructive and productive. The question we’re implicitly asking is, “What can I get done now?” Our focus is on doing and whittling down that list.

Imagine, however, that we start the day by asking questions such as:

“What one important thing am I going to achieve today?”

“How can I best contribute to my team today?”

“How can I maximise my energy level throughout the day?”

“What one special thing can I do for my spouse today?”

“What will I do today that will push my boundaries and make me grow?"

Notice that these questions are not implicit. They frame one’s use of time, and they begin with overarching priorities and values. When the implicit question is about “What can I get done now?” we are pushed by the demands of the present.

When the question is “What will make today special?” we are pulled toward our priorities. Asking why you are so bad cannot lead to answers that make you feel good. As McQuaid observes, in a very important sense, our realities are shaped by the questions we ask.

In the you-or-me world freedom usually means to keep our options open but most of our experiences of real freedom aren’t when we are measuring the options against one another. We bring freedom to our relationships with each other when we centre ourselves in sufficiency and choose to APPRECIATE the resources that are there.

I leave it to Aristotle to suggest the importance of Balance in the life of society. Although his Philosopher Kings would epitomise the four virtues of temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice he also argues that such enlightened action is not solely the privilege of an elite. He teaches (and this is open to all) that man must, and is able, to find the right balance in his own life between deficiency and excess, describing this as the ‘golden mean.’ A life that is lived in excess is damaging to society overall, as are lives devoid of basic needs.

Business, beware

It is interesting to consider how appreciative inquiry and having more collaboration in the balance can alter a business’s practices to create an advantage. This is not just the domain of the sharing-economy start-up: it could dynamically change even the most traditional of companies for the better.

Perhaps an organisation would benefit from reappraising how it identifies and makes the best use of people’s talents – working from what they have rather than what the organisation thinks it needs (the list of needs might even change!) Another way might be for an organisation to crowd-source some of its working processes – if people make their own environment, it may well be that business runs more smoothly and efficiently (and you might end up retaining more talent!)

This may sound outlandish to some people: you are exactly the people this is for. The world is changing, work is changing, businesses need to change. You can be creative now, while you’re ahead, or be forced to later, when the world is already way beyond you. Think about how you can avoid playing desperate catch-up, I urge you.

David Best 3 Crop
David Best 3 Crop
David Gustave, Chief Inspiration Officer