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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