December 7, 2016

Co-operation vs Competition: The Trick to Success

In the early nineties I did a piece of work at a colliery called Matla in Mphumalanga and was told a story about a production competition that used to be held on one of the shafts of the mine.

The mine had 2 production sections each run by a mine overseer. The coal from each section came out from underground on a separate conveyor belt. The manager in charge of the shaft used to have a monthly production competition between the two sections, which one section consistently won because the other section was mining in severely dyked ground and could not achieve its production call. In frustration the mine overseer from the losing section instructed one of his shift bosses to drive a spike through the opposing section’s conveyor belt. They cut 15 kilometers of conveyor in two!

I have not managed to verify this account, but at the time the story did ring true and demonstrated to me the danger of soliciting competition between members of the same group.

The key assumption of our Enterprise Excellence Model is that groups succeed based on the degree to which the individual is unconditional in pursuit of the group’s objectives. The production of a surplus or a profit, for example, only happens because the total product which was made was bigger than what each individual took out of the enterprise. Collectively they gave more than what they took.

This suggests that groups succeed based on the degree to which the individual gives unconditionally in pursuit of the group’s objectives.

This principle becomes manifest in the way in which individuals in the group interact. If one viewed an organisation as a pattern of interactions between members of the organisation, then it becomes apparent that each interaction can either have a competitive or a co-operative character. It has a competitive character based on the degree to which individuals interact with the intent to succeed themselves or to get something for themselves out of the interaction. They have a co-operative character based on the degree to which at least one individual engages the other in the interaction with the intent to set the other person up for success.

That it is fundamentally good for groups when the individual co-operate rather than compete, was demonstrated by the various team performances during the world cup. The teams that were populated with stars all fared poorly. It was as if the degree to which the individuals were bigger than the team had a direct bearing on whether the team would succeed or not. On the other hand, the teams that did really well were not populated by particularly big personalities. When one observes corporate teams for any length of time it becomes apparent that the biggest danger that organisations face is very often not the threat from without,

it is the destructive effect of competition between members of the team or functions and departments within the organisation.