Cooperation is the foundation of human development, in that we learn how to be together before we learn how to stand apart.
— Richard Sennett, Together
Specialization and cooperative exchange are revealed as the routes of self-interest.
— Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture
For creative advancement, change is essential. And while all creative exchange will have a cooperative element, competition on the whole takes a slight edge. This may seem counterintuitive, since we generally yearn for order, unity, and connection. But progress depends on disorder and fluidity. Sometimes the best aids to our work are people who knock us most off balance.
— Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two
Last week, an opinion piece by Geoffrey James was published in Inc. James argues that ‘collaboration creates mediocrity’. Attention-grabbing headline aside, his article focuses on the effects of workplace environment and unstable personal relationships. It is informed too by the tendency to pigeonhole and classify.
No workplace, no relationship, is entirely collaborative. Our interactions and experience of the world are more nuanced than that. Rather, there tends to be a continuum ranging from competition through cooperation and on to collaboration that reflects constant contextual shifts in what we do alone and together. The Inc. article points to workplace distrust, choosing to frame it in terms of the bubbling resentment of the mediocre rather than positive competition that can help everyone improve.
Movement from competition to collaboration or cooperation usually reflects varying levels of trust. The more collaborative the endeavour, the higher the level of trust. Collaboration is about common purpose and shared goals, whereas cooperation is about unions of temporary convenience which can be mutually beneficial during the pursuit of different objectives. Competition is both divergent and convergent in that it involves different groups pursuing the same thing in different ways. Such competing groups are inherently distrustful of one another.
Truly collaborative organisations can be quite fluid, with ever-shifting responsibilities, as individuals both lead and follow, adapting flexibly to changing needs, sometimes guiding, sometimes being guided. Collaboration by default entails learning and development, so mediocrity should be quickly addressed either through personal development or ejection. If mediocrity is retained, then collaboration is probably not what is happening. A label misapplied. This, at core, is the issue I have with James’s argument.
I am currently working on a book with Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg about Nordic leadership. What has become apparent from our many conversations and the numerous interviews they have conducted are the societal differences regarding trust and, by extension, collaboration.
In most Nordic countries, trust is implicit. It is baked into social interactions, evident from an early age in the education system and the encouragement of collaborative projects. In Anglophone countries like the UK and the US, on the other hand, greater emphasis is placed on competition. Trust has to be earned in these countries. Distrust is the norm, particularly distrust of ‘the institution’ as embodied by corporate and political leaders. Just witness the reaction this week to Theresa May’s reasons for calling a general election.
In a country like Denmark, it is perfectly acceptable to leave a sleeping child in a pram on the street outside a café. But in the US, for example, such action can lead to prosecution for neglect and the child being put into the care system. In the Nordics, implicit trust establishes an expectation that others will do the right thing. Elsewhere, where distrust is endemic, everyone is suspect. These worldviews inevitably shape different cultural approaches to and perception of collaboration and cooperation.
Writing about the peloton over the past few years has helped clarify my own thinking about competition, collaboration and cooperation. The nuances are neatly reflected in the activities that take place in the breakaway. This usually forms early in a road race, with a group of cyclists from different teams pulling away from the main peloton.
Members of the breakaway will temporarily put aside competition with one another and between their respective teams to work together. Their first objective is to stay away from the peloton, building a substantial time gap. Each member of the breakaway will have different personal objectives. Some will be working towards a stage win, others will be working on behalf of another team member behind them. Others still are simply seeking several hours of television exposure for their team’s sponsor. Cooperation is an arrangement of mutual benefit, which will once again give way to competition as the finish line nears.
Sport is a rich source of examples from the competition–collaboration–cooperation continuum. Another comes from yesterday’s announcement of the British and Irish Lions rugby union squad, which will be touring New Zealand in June and July. The squad is comprised of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These are themselves representative teams, and in Ireland’s case is one which bridges the national borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, playing all its home games in Dublin.
The players in the Lions squad, therefore, already participate in an array of allegiances and relationships that will be further complicated. Some play together at club level but compete with one another internationally. All have to put aside intense club rivalries when they represent their countries, and now will have to overcome national differences in pulling on the Lions red jersey. Each will be competing with several others for a place in the starting line-up, or at least a role in the test squad. Yet, despite all this, they will need to cohere as a group, collaborating with one another, pursuing a common purpose.
Valdis Krebs often encourages people to ‘connect on your similarities and benefit from your differences’. This is the glue of a collaborative endeavour like the Lions, that will nevertheless feature elements of competition and cooperation too. Humility and servant leadership are essential, trust is everything, and those who lead must also learn to follow. This is neatly symbolised by the award of the captaincy to Sam Warburton for the Lions tour. His Welsh national captain, Alan Wyn Jones, will have to follow his lead, as will Rory Best the Irish skipper, working with others to form a supportive leadership group.
Collaboration is about collective strength, implicit trust, common goals and constant learning. It is about the relationships not the physical or digital spaces that enable them.
An aspect of open collaboration literacy which may seem counter intuitive is that of competition.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines
The connected workplace requires collaboration as well as cooperation. Both collaborative behaviours (working together for a common goal) and cooperative behaviours (sharing freely without any quid pro quo) are needed, but most organizations today focus their efforts on shorter term collaboration. However, networks really thrive on cooperation, where people share without any direct benefit. Modelling cooperation is another important leadership skill in the connected workplace.
— Harold Jarche, Adapting to Perpetual Beta
Today, open sharing and collaboration are proving better long-term corporate strategies than sequestering research and development. Hiding one’s secret formulas suggests to the public—and to investors—that the company is depending on the innovations of the past and fears it won’t continue to develop new ideas into the future. Its best days are behind it, and now all the company can do is play defense. In contrast, the confidently innovating company shares its developments in the hope of incorporating the insights of others.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus
Addendum: Why triangles? It is the loose shape often formed by a peloton during a road race. I think of it as something fluid rather than a rigid structure.