COLLABORATIVE ADVANTAGE AND THE SURVIVAL OF the friendliest.
PAUL SKINNER CHALLENGES THE WIDELY ACCEPTED ‘COMPETITVE ADVANTAGE’ MANTRA IN BUSINESS, AND ASKS WHETHER IT IS NOT IN FACT COLLABORATION THAT LEADS MOST GREAT ORGANISATIONS TO SUCCESS.
Collaborate or die?
Let’s take the proposition literally.
When I was six years old I saw my father survive a massive heart attack followed by a year in hospital thanks to one of the early heart transplant operations. This was made possible by innumerable acts of cooperation, essential among which was an individual life-saving act of peer-to-peer cooperation, which came well before we had access to the internet, or social media or there was anything called the ‘Sharing Economy’, in the form of a motorcyclist who was thoughtful enough to carry a donor card.
But what role does cooperation play more broadly in our evolutionary success?
The ‘survival of the fittest’ depends upon the evolutionary advantage of superior options in nature. But what is the process through which diverse options are created in the first place? Surely more of a ‘snuggle for survival’ than a ‘struggle for survival’?
Furthermore, what makes us uniquely successful in the evolutionary process as humans is hardly our capacity for competition: even Usain Bolt couldn’t outsprint a jaguar (but if you try asking a jaguar to organise a charity fun run...).
It is our capacity for cooperation that sets us apart from other species, in everything from our long periods of nurtured infancy through our uniquely complex language, to our uncanny ability to mirror patterns in each other’s feelings and behaviour. According to recent research by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier for example, even our capacity for reasoning has developed less as a mechanism for working out the right answers and more as a social mechanism for justifying our propositions in conversational negotiation.
And yet we seem to forget ourselves when entering the world of business, where the concept of ‘Competitive Advantage’ and the metaphor more broadly of competition and competitiveness dominate our understanding of how to create our success and drive the creation of economic value.
Ideas as pervasive as this however can find unexpected ways to hold us back, especially when we are not consciously using them. They infiltrate our core assumptions and once relegated to our subconscious minds we no longer see them and can therefore no longer challenge them. And yet they can have a profoundly limiting effect on what opportunities we are able to perceive, on how we think about them, on what actions we take in response to them and therefore on what we are able to accomplish.
In my book 'Collaborative Advantage: How collaboration beats competition as a strategy for success’, I suggest that the metaphor of competition creates an unhelpful perception of the relationship between a business and the environment in which it operates which can cause value to be left uncreated. It too readily reinforces the idea that we inside the business are the value-creators and that success comes from what we are able to do to the world based on our own efforts rather than as an act of cooperation that aligns the needs, desires and active value-creating potential of the business, its customers and their communities.
This limited thinking even drives our use of language: a word as commonplace as ‘consumer’ for example tacitly reveals a perception of selling to people whose human agency can somehow be limited to their capacity to diminish, by a few units, the world’s supply of whatever resource we happen to be selling them.
The radical alternative approach of Collaborative Advantage I propose, creates the opportunity both to ask different questions of ourselves and also a result to find new answers:
• How can businesses grow more quickly by better harnessing the fuller value-creating potential of the environment in which they operate and of their customers, whilst being active creators of their own value?
• How can we better address social challenges by more strongly harnessing our collective agency and in particular the agency of whichever groups we are most looking to support?
• And what methods and techniques can make it easier to accelerate these processes?
Let’s restore human purpose to the stories we tell ourselves in the form of organisational strategies and better harness our innate capacity for cooperation as the means for fulfilling that purpose. It may be the best chance we have.