Back in 1971 in my first year at grammar school, I got to the final of the singles tennis tournament. My opponent was a year older than me and in my sister’s class. She was taller, stronger and she had a proper coach. I lost. By a pretty easy margin. I was devastated. Not because I was a bad loser, but because it was the first time I had ever really and truly lost at anything. In just the same year I had sailed through my introduction to ‘grown-up’ academic training and come top of the class in every single subject in my year — from maths to latin — just as I had in junior school. I had never had the experience of not being at the top of the pyramid.
Even though I lost at tennis, the mere fact of coming top of the class in everything else attracted a completely different kind of attention that I was equally unprepared for. Bullying. By the time I came back to school in year two after the Summer, a group of girls had decided I was to be ostracised and for a whole year, no-one spoke to me. I was completely shunned. By the end of year two I was failing exams, disrupting class and generally behaving badly. Without help and support it seemed the only way to try to gain re-acceptance. It didn’t work.
Though on the surface the two experiences seem unrelated, there is a thin red line that ties them both together and that is the embedded nature of competition in our society, and its twin sister ‘success envy’. In the UK we call it tall poppy syndrome.
Competition is a foundational pillar in our modern paradigm, especially in business. We want to win market share from our competitors. We compete for the best talent out there to make us more successful than our competitors. We compete to win contracts. Competition is seen as a key driving force in market economies; it is believed to be the source of all innovation and in the eyes of traditional economist, it drives all essential growth.
It’s embedded deep in our educational design programmes. We have examination systems in which the ‘cream rises to the top’ and gets scholarship places to the best universities.
We compete in sports all over the world where ‘taking part’ has long since been replaced by winning at all costs in many cases because the worldly rewards of being a winner at sport are so undeniably enormous.
Many people track the idea of competition as a key societal pillar back to Darwin. Poor old Darwin. If he could have known the impact of what the misinterpretation of his findings would be, he might have ripped up On The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and put them on the bonfire!
Despite popular belief — and a whole cupboard full of sayings to support it from ‘dog-eat-dog’ (they don’t) to survival of the fittest — it turns out that competition is incredibly rare in nature, and for good reason. As Dayna Baumeister co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8 says “Life avoids direct competition wherever possible because it is dangerous and costly to life. If you study carefully the principles around which all life functions — you will soon find that life creates the conditions conducive to life. And that doesn’t include competition — only very brief bursts in the mating season. Even these are tempered with festive show and flourish to avoid anyone getting really hurt.”
What we need to achieve is a shift from a competitive mindset to a collaborative one. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures, Daniel Christian Wahl says it well:-
“We need to shift from thinking about ‘competitive advantage’ to co-creating ‘collaborative advantage’ if we want to create a world that works for all. The converging crises and the potential for synergistic opportunities that societies everywhere — and humanity as a whole — are faced with are of a systemic nature and need systemic solutions.”
What strategies does nature have to share with us on collaboration vs competition?
Nature has a number of different strategies in create the collaborative conditions that are conducive to life. One of the most useful to us humans is mutualisms. Mutualism in nature take many forms, yet ultimately mean prospering in a reciprocal partnership where the success of one party supports the success of the other.
Birds are pretty good at mutualism. The oxpecker is often seen on the back of cape buffalo, zebras and rhinos sustaining itself by devouring all the bugs and parasites who live on their skin, all the while doing a massive service to the mammal.
The clownfish and the sea anemone have formed a great mutual partnership. The tentacles of anemones sting most other fish which come near, but the mucus on the clownfish protects it from the their sting. The clownfish has a home and in return protects the anemone from its predator, the butterfly fish.
A rather rare example of mutualism between humans and a wild organism is the relationship between the Yao honey-hunters and the greater honeyguide. When the Yao tribe call for them, the bird recognises, understands and responds to the hunters call and leads them to honey in the forest.
How does mutualism work?
I talked to a lot of people who have made successful and enduring collaborative partnerships in business. Some of the key principles they followed to achieve this success were incredibly simple on the surface and I’ve found they happily map to nature’s process of developing mutualisms!
- There must be a net benefit for each party; a clear way in which each benefit at least relatively equally.There should be deep discussion about how each party assesses and acknowledges that value. Conflicts occur when there is an imbalance in what each brings, or what one party perceives that they are bringing more to the table than the other party — unless these areas are clearly discussed in advance of a partnership, the partnership often fails.
- Ensure both parties in the value exchange bring skills and knowledge to the table that is complimentary to the goal, not competitive i.e. different resources or services.Too often we ‘birds of a feather flock together’. We want to work with people ‘like us’. But this should be applied to shared values only not the actual service or product or expertise we bring to the table. These should be opposite and complimentary — ‘opposites attract’.
- The benefit of resources or services is something each collaborator can easily and readily provide to the other one i.e it’s not something you have to go out and learn from scratch.You bring together your number one area of specialism and expertise to create something greater than the sum of the parts.
- Collaborators have a system to adapt to each other and to changing contexts.In other words they design in moments in time for reflection on the relationship and a process to deal with any conflicts which arise. One of the most novel ways I have come across to do this is The Blueprint of We.
How does this actually work in the business world?
Some time in 2018 I wrote about a series of pre-competitive partnershipsacross industry, where different groups of organisations who would normally be competitive have come together to solve major issues which affect all of them. These are issues from plastic packaging to sourcing sustainable energy and producing non-toxic dyes and sustainable fabrics for the fashion industry. As the size of our sustainability challenges grow, there is almost no way a single organisation can solve them without bringing together the collective knowledge of the whole industry.
Collaborations in the fashion community have abounded for a couple of decades now but only more recently to drive sustainability as a collaborative advantage.
A very short list of the many examples emerging worldwide here include:
- Heinz benefitting from a partnership with Coco Cola who have developed a bottle made from 100% plant-based materials and plant residues
- Collaboration between Coming Inc and Sharp to manufacture more environmentally sound LCD screens
- Parley for the Oceans and Adidas in developing footwear from reclaimed discarded ocean plastic. In 2019 adidas will produce 11 million pairs of shoes containing upcycled marine plastic waste. And since 2015, the partnership with Parley has helped keep over 2,810 tonnes of plastic waste out of the oceans.
- Interface, ZSL London and Aqualfil to product industrial flooring from discarded fishing nets in the Philippines
- Young people in the Netherlands can live in elderly care homes rent-free in return for providing help to care for the residents
- Project Mainstream, the partnership between Ellen Macarthur Foundation and WEF on the circular economy, which includes the New Plastics Economy project
- Make Fashion Circular — also led by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and Circular Leap Asia from Forum for the Future
At the other end of the spectrum, we can see smaller individual partnerships flourishing for change:
- The collaboration between Dayna Baumeister and Toby Herzlich on developing training for Biomimicry in Social Innovation — bringing together deep knowledge in biology/biomimicry and organisational change management/leadership which inspired this article and has developed a whole new strand of impact for biomimicry!
- Elvis & Kresse — an amazing partnership between two highly imaginative and innovative people recycling waste (fire hoses) into luxury fashion
Is there a difference between collaboration and co-creation?
Co-creation is another very popular concept which is rising — and is the subject of a future post! I believe co-creation is a step beyond collaboration which can be done between two companies or individuals or multiple. Co-creation is about envisioning something entirely transformational which not only disrupts a sector but transforms it completely.
The opportunity to collaborate or even to co-create to deliver a regenerative future should be on our minds regularly. Our challenges are now so systemic that only collaborative and co-creative approaches where collective intelligence is shared openly, can hope to solve some of the major issues we face.