Friday, July 28, 2020

Thoughts About Competition

Dealing with competition is a problem for many organizations. In a free market, competition is inevitable, and people will always compete with one another for a better place in the sun. Yet today’s macho, bottom-line obsessed organizations are riddled with competition of the most destructive kinds: the ones that turn colleagues and departments against one another, and make “beating the other guy” more important than serving the customer or building a way of working that will provide lasting benefits to everyone involved.

The natural world maybe provides some pointers on how to cope with this problematic side of competition. Nature manages to stay relatively stable over thousands or even millions of years, and produce an amazing diversity of species, by mixing and collaboration in precise ways.

At the simplest level, there is always competition between individuals of the same species: for food, for places to live, for mates, and for survival. It must be this way, because each individual in the species is looking for identical “rewards” from the environment; rewards that are always in short supply. Exactly the same level of all-out internal competition is produced when organization set individuals to compete for more-or-less identical rewards, whether in terms of bonuses, pay increases, promotion opportunities, or anything else. The evil of performance appraisals is not just their hopelessly vague and subjective nature, it is also the way they are used to set up open competition for limited shares in a “pot” of money. Besides, if people know that a poor rating makes them vulnerable in the next round of staff reductions, and ratings are fixed to set proportions along pre-set scales, they are competing for survival, not just reward.

Competition of this type is war to the death. It is the ultimate zero-sum game, since for me to survive, win and grab as big a share of the limited rewards as possible, you (and probably several other people) have to lose. You cannot expect people to compete “nicely” under such circumstances.

Competition in the Market

The fiercest competition in the market comes where several organization compete for the same niche. It is exactly like several different species trying to establish themselves in the same niche in the environment. Only one can win—or two at most, with one dominant and the other barely clinging on for survival.

Nature avoids this as much as possible, since it results in rapid extinctions. Where it happens in the natural world today, it is nearly always Man’s doing: introducing alien species, by chance or design, into an environment they should not be in. Take House Sparrows in North America, or rats and house cats in pristine Pacific islands. The new, more aggressive species drive out the ones that ought to be there.

Where niches overlap, there is still competition, but it is less intense. In the part of Arizona where I live, bobcats and mountain lions live in roughly the same environments in the mountains. But their niches overlap only partially. Bobcats eat quail, rabbits, rats and mice, while the lions prey mostly on deer and javelina. The result is that both species can thrive, so long as food does not become too scarce, forcing them to grab whatever they can. Organizations in overlapping niches also compete to a limited extent, leaving open possibilities for either ignoring one another, or even developing collaborative ventures.

For individuals too, if the areas where they must compete are limited, space is made for collaboration. Well-managed organization generally ensure that competition for rewards is limited and partial, so restraining the kind of cut-throat, political infighting that less well-managed organizations experience.

Diversity and Co-operation

To return to Nature, how is it that so many species can live in a small area without discord? I’ll use birds as an example, since I know most about them.

There are many species of warblers in North America. All are small, active birds that eat bugs. But if you consider their habitats, some species feed mostly on the ground, some in low bushes and scrub, some at the middle level of trees, and some high in the canopy. A few species live only in the west; more live mostly in the east and central parts of the continent. When they migrate south in winter, some go only as far as Mexico, others right down into the Amazon basin, or even further. Each has its own niche, so they do not compete for the same resources and can all flourish independently.

There are also many examples in the natural world of species that cooperate, like birds that pick parasites off large mammals, or coyotes following badgers around to snap up creatures disturbed by the badger’s digging.

The way to limit destructive competition in and between organizations, without affecting competitiveness in the outside world, is to follow Nature and provide for as many different niches as possible. This means encouraging diversity, not just in the obvious ways, but also diversity of aims, goals, interests, and skills. While it may seem tempting to make everyone focus on the same goals and rewards, the result will be a sharp increase in internal competition. That’s why the most rigid and formalized organizations and groupings (academics, for example) are often the most violently competitive. They are all in open conflict for identical niches. The smaller the niche (say in an obscure discipline), the fiercer will be the fighting.

Today’s conflicts around the world are also mostly driven by groups of people fighting over a single, limited niche, whether of land or influence. Human beings are part of Nature, so generally comply with natural ways of behaving, unless they allow their minds to step in and find a better way. In organizations, as in the world at large, our species has the unique ability to move away from purely instinctive behaviors, changing our responses and modifying our environments to produce a better way of living. It’s sad how infrequently we do it.

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While I really enjoy this blog and read it assiduously (thank you for many interesting reads), I'm not sure I'd follow a natural view of the collaboratoin/competition. The number of species occupying different niches is an end result of intense competition - you just don't get to see the losers as extiction has taken care of that. While I see the direction you're taking (at least I think I am - maybe I'm just being dense) I think your symbiosis examples are much stronger.

Maybe I'm just being picky - if so, please let me know at [email protected].

Again, thank you for the posts.
Thanks for your comment, trundling grunt. I very much appreciate it.

I'm not sure I agree with you that the number of species in different niches is the result of intense competition. However, it scarcely matters, because the final result of intense competition is always the same: one/two winners and extinction for everyone else.
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