On Competition

Gary Hamel on his Management Innovation Exchange website has written a fine post on empowering natural leaders, contrasting the power of the internet with the power of formal hierarchies. Along the way, he writes:

The Internet is flat, open and meretricious. Nevertheless, there are thousands of natural hierarchies online. Pick any subject, search the blogosphere, and you’ll uncover a hierarchy of influence—some blogs receive higher authority scores than others. Visit any online discussion group and you’ll find that a few frequent contributors have been ranked more highly than the rest. Or click the “most viewed” tab on a website that features user-generated content, and you’ll quickly discover who’s been blessed with creative genius and who hasn’t. While the barometer of respect may differ from site to site, the rankings are nearly always peer-based. Online, you have millions of critics but you don’t have a boss.

Competition is a core value for American business culture, and from one slant it seems that what is happening with the net is not a democratization of our organizations so much as a transmutation of this same value. I’ve been aware for a long time that high tech cultures are often highly competitive around ideas. I was told one day at a big software firm, for example, that “here, if you can’t defend it, you really don’t have a right to say it.” Which is to say there’s underlying belief that somehow the best ideas will prevail as the product of aggressive debate. Ah, if only it were so. Aggressive debate easily leads to mind games, undermining, comparison, and dismissal, techniques that in turn lead to dominance of factions and control of another kind. Not much different, really, from an old style hierarchy where the ideas that dominate are those with formal power, vertically expressed. The point is that competition can be just as easily expressed horizontally, through power of an informal nature. Just because it’s lateral does not make it less destructive to human community.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that throwing differing ideas on the table is a problem. I’m only suggesting that there’s a big difference between conversations in which winning and losing are going on, and conversations in which synergy is going on. And synergy — the creation of outcomes larger than the sum of the components — happens in a particular kind of relationship field. One where winning and losing actually have no place among the people, where the collaborative assumption and underlying tone are that differences aim us toward discovery. I chided Gary about the MIX site itself, offering a contest with big rewards on the best ways to build trust in organizations. A contest? And how will a contest work? And sure, enough, if you view the “management hacks” on the site in this competition, you’ll see plenty of threads where people are fundamentally knocking one another’s ideas, intellectually outmaneuvering one another, the same old male order of matched wits arguing, “Well, look, if you’d just listen to me, you’ll see my ideas are the answer, or at least better than yours.” Where’s the “Wow, how could we put these ideas together!?” Indeed, I would ask, where?

I am certainly myself not immune. I got sucked right into the contest, busy promoting my own ideas and work, hoping others would see the value of what I’m doing. What I see now is selfishness and self-promotion, more individualism and less thinking for myself or living my meanings, and I’m not sure I would enter again, particularly where the issue is trust. In this regard, I like Gary’s use of the word, meretricious for the internet.


Guadalupe / Sante Fe

I believe we will have to search our hearts to find any true “management innovation.” And we’ll have to use our brains in an entirely different way. In my comment on Gary’s post I wrote, “The world isn’t going to be saved simply by the most powerful individuals or their best ideas but by the power and the ideas that we have found together.” I believe that. It is all too easy to run after these opportunities to compete as if they are the hen that lays the golden eggs.

I find myself contemplating how pervasive the need is to step back and to find a very different way.

Technorati Tags: Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • I was involved in Debate in college–an extracurricular that forced the practice and execution of rapid, in-the-heat-of-the-moment argument. The most valuable thing I gained was not the gift of debate, but the lesson that winning a round had nothing to do with the strength or the validity or brilliance of the position of idea, and everything to do with the debater’s ability to argue well.

    These days I’m far more interested in coaxing out the voices of the less-naturally-argumentative sorts. There is gold to be had there, and, as you observed, in collaboration.

  • Siona! Thank you so much for stopping by. It’s great to hear your voice again. Like you, I grew up with Debate (in High School rather than College) and quickly learned that arguing well has little to do with insight because it fundamentally does not build bridges between ideas or people. Difference and disagreement, even conflict, can be a treasure if it leads to synergy. But Debate, capital D, was never about that.

    So, did you win any prizes?

  • Hmmm, no new posts for a month … seems like you are stepping back 🙂

    I, too, like the word meretricious, but I was initially misinterpreting the meaning (until I looked it up): “Apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity”.

    Your observation about Gary’s contest is yet another example of what I see as the overgamification of the Internet – everyone seems to be contestifying sites and apps with points and leaderboards these days. I think these can add value when they are intrinsically linked to the goals of the site or app, but as you point out, they can also detract when not well aligned.

    Other insights and observations you share remind me of something I read last night in The Power of Pull, by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison), where they talk about relationship architectures and propose that “the key institutional challenge will be to develop mechanisms to pull the core out to the most promising edges” rather than vice versa, as is more the norm in “push”-oriented organizations … perhaps including the software company you mention in your post.

    Finally, I’ll note that your post reminds me of what I’ve read about the work of Alfie Kohn (perhaps on another of your posts?), e.g., his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition. I’d say you’ve made a pretty good case here.

  • Hi Joe

    Thanks for writing. You’re right about the no new posts. I put a great deal of time and attention into the MIX site recently, and have a couple of posts in draft form but am not ready yet to release them.

    I like your thought about gamification. I find this on television, too. Show after show about surviving a competition — it’s no wonder we are conditioned that way right now. Don’t know The Power of Pull and will take a look. Alfie Kohn’s stuff is an old friend…

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