Traditionally evolution is connected with fight and competition. Darwin phrased the mechanisms “Survival of the Fittest”, which is often interpreted as “Survival of the Strongest”. Otto and his colleagues point out that modern biologists have a slightly different view on this: It’s not the fittest who survive but the unfittest who die out. In other words you don’t have to be best, it is enough not to be the worst – an observation you can also make in today’s economy. In addition Otto points out, that most interactions between species are based on collaboration rather than competition: Bacteria help mammals including humans to digest and in turn receive the safe protection of the much more developed mammal body. Ants protect plant louses and receive food in return, animals of prey form cross-species herds to protect from predators, and so on. You find these types of collaboration in organizations in individual networks, such as linkedIn or Xing, in company networks, such as the StarAlliance, in business community, such as the Open Source community, and of course in teams, especially in agile organizations.
However, competition is also necessary to start the selection process. Without competition the species stops development and eventually looses it’s ability to adopt to changes – the dinosaurs couldn’t deal with the climate disaster after the crash of a meteorite and many former market leaders were not able to react to technological or economic changes and thus vanished – anyone here remembering DEC, for example, who were market leaders in mini computers and did not survive the advent of the PC in the eighties?
There are different forms of competition, both in nature and in industry. The first are within individuals of the same species or organization:
- Competing over ranks
- Competing over resources
- Competing over territories (Cubicle or room with a view?)
- Competing over and within the gender
- Defense against “internal enemies”
- Defense against other mavericks
Whenever you’re involved with management you find that you spend (too?) much of your time, both playing and arbitrating these kinds of games. And there is also the competition between different species and organizations that results in win-loose situations: No doubt, the Zebra escaping the Cheetah wins while the Cheetah looses and the other way round if the Cheetah is faster. There is no win-win situation.
Otto suggests that successful organizations show similar behavior as successful species, both in collaboration and in competition:
- Collaboration is built upon trust. Both partners play by the same rules
- You care about the profit of the partner you collaborate with – even on the expense of your own short-term profit, because you know that in the long term you will gain more from the partnership if you support it than if you destroy it. Short-sighted cost reduction on the expense of your vendors is an example of violating these rules and turning collaboration into competition – usually on the expense of your own product quality.
- Competition is never trying to destroy the competitor – a predator extincting the prey would soon extinct its own species. Note that we’re talking about species here, not about individuals!
- Competitors may turn into partners and vice versa. Treat them accordingly and be fair.
Otto concludes that the most successful organizations have high ethic standards both toward collaboration and toward competition. They always keep respect and fair play. They prefer collaboration over competition, but they’re prepared to run a tough competition too – and they will do in their core market.
If you map this to agile organizations, you will find all of these elements. While collaboration is one of the basic values of agility, we also know competitive elements: We fight over solutions building competing spikes, we help the product owner to stand the competition in the market and we use retrospectives to turn fight and competition within the team into constructive collaboration again. It’s all a matter of the right balance.