This is the second post on the German book “Evolutionary Management” by Klaus-Stephan Otto and others. If you missed my first post on this, you may want to start there.

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.


Jens Coldewey

Jens Coldewey, based in Munich, Germany, is a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Agile Product & Project Management Practice. He specializes in deploying agile development and object-oriented techniques in large organizations.


  One Response to “Evolutionary Management II – On Collaboration and Competition”

  1. Jens’ comments on collaboration and competition are also reflected in the sciences. While historically people have referred to Darwin and “survival of the fittest,” a group of scientists, particularly biologists, have begun referring to something called “arrival of the fittest.” In complex environments, “Emergence, characterized as arrival of the fittest, is significantly more important than survival of the fittest,” is how I characterized it in “Adaptive Software Development”, my first agile book.

    There are a group of scientist who think that Darwin’s survival theories are necessary, but insufficient, to have been responsible for all of evolution. “As some Darwinian critics have quipped–it has the same probability as a tornado sweeping through a junkyard assembling a Boeing 747. There are a growing contingent of evolutionary biologists, represented by the work of Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute, who insist arrival of the fittest, not survival of the fittest, is the driving force behind evolution. Moreover, where random mutation provides the grist for the survival mill, self-organization does the same for arrival. Evolution is then a combination of creating significant new forms, through self-organization followed by refinement using natural selection. (ASD Chapter 1).”

    So the science, at least the science of Complex Adaptive Systems, backs up Otto’s ideas about the importance of balancing cooperation and competition. There was even a book published in 1997 with the title “Co-opetition,” that discussed the balancing of these two biological, and organizational, forces.

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