Collaboration & Competition. A peaceful coexistence

During the so called ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the British government collaborated with the IRA to agree code words to use for a warning of a bomb explosion so they could tell a hoax from the real thing. This is a perfect example of Ken Thompson’s compelling argument in his new book that collaboration and competition always co-exist and they cannot be separated from the social context in which they occur.

I’m honoured to write the introduction to Ken’s book, A Systematic Guide to Collaboration and Competition within Organizations

About the book

It’s been said that collaboration isn’t just a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that. This book describes why this statement is true.

I’ve learned something new reading this book and its implications are far reaching for organisations and individuals. I’ve learned that collaboration cannot exist without competition and both are in a constant state of flux dictated by the ever changing environment in which they occur.

There are scenarios where competition works better to achieve an outcome, and those where collaboration is much more effective. The myth of ‘just collaborate more to solve all your problems’ has well and truly been debunked by the findings in this book. Even what we think as pure competition and pure collaboration aren’t exactly what they seem, at least based on strict dictionary definitions. Ken has discovered they are more nuanced and has described in simple language, supported by compelling evidence that in most cases cannot be disputed, why we must pay attention to these subtly different definitions.

This book is intelligently layered, acting as a general introduction to the dynamics of collaboration and competition, making it easy for readers to get a strong appreciation of the subject matter without having to dive into the detail. Arguments to support the key findings are well researched and articulated using simple language. For practitioners, the detail is set out clearly and tightly woven into the theory. There’s a legendary exchange between the CFO and CEO of a company that goes along the lines of:

CFO asks CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and they leave?”

CEO to CFO: “What happens if we don’t and they stay?”

For business leaders, this book explains why this exchange is about a much bigger story on how incentive schemes and reward regimes lead to profoundly different outcomes, and how they can adjust their approaches to optimise business performance.

Collaboration isn’t easy. As Ken says, ‘both competition and collaboration behaviours are highly infectious’ and that’s why the payoff is so high when organisations get it right, particularly when they accept that competition and collaboration can and should coexist in some conditions and circumstances.

For the most ardent sceptic, Ken has devised four different online simulators that can be played by groups of different sizes in which participants can experience the theory in real time. Having co-designed a Network Leadership Game with Ken, and used it in Sei Mani’s professional work, I know how powerful these are in their capacity to creatively ask and concisely answer meaningful questions in the collaboration arena.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is perhaps the best example of the compete/collaborate dynamic in which each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. What would you do?

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