Competition versus collaboration

Which delivers betters results? A highly competitive environment or a highly collaborative one? There are some signs that in our highly complex world, collaboration is currently winning.

Microsoft was a company that was hyper-competitive, both externally and internally. The strategy of pitting internal units against each other in a Darwinian struggle worked well for many years. However, as the Web matured, Microsoft began to lose ground.

I have worked on Microsoft projects over many years, mainly relating to web content and navigation. Within the company, there was a very strong production culture. Someone once told me that they had estimated that there were about 15 million pages on Microsoft.com, four million of which had never been accessed. That’s practically the population of Ireland in pages that nobody has ever even looked at.

Competition breeds production. New content, new pages, new websites, new features, new products. In one instance, I talked to a team and showed them how a huge number of their pages were out-of-date. They all agreed that this was quite unfavorable but they also all decided that nothing was going to be done about it. “If I meet my boss on Friday and she asked me what I did this week,” someone explained to me, “and if I tell her I deleted 100 pages, she’ll maybe look at me and smile. And then she’ll ask again: ‘What did you actually do? What did you produce?’”

In the last few years, Microsoft has sought to change its culture. Now, it rewards people based on three factors:

  1. What did you create?
  2. What did you share?
  3. What did you use of what others created?

Sharing and using are inherently collaborative activities. Why would Microsoft want to do that? What benefit does it see in sharing and using? That benefit would be better, more rounded and inclusive products and services. Things that are better maintained and easier to find. Less reinvention of the wheel.

In a digital environment, if you compete based on production, you’re going to very soon reach a point of glut, bloat and overload, because it is so much easier to produce and copy digital stuff.

Sharing and reusing, on the other hand, encourage evolution, maintenance and review of the produced things. For your stuff to be shared, it has to be useful. But before even that, it has to be discoverable. And you don’t want people discovering your out-of-date stuff. So, that encourages you to review and remove where appropriate.

In a great many organizations I interact with today, I hear about collaboration and, particularly, multidisciplinary and multicultural collaboration. In science, it’s less of a norm to have single author papers. In fact, there is an explosion in the growth of papers authored by hundreds and even thousands of scientists.

The world is burdened by human production and consumption. For too long, we have rewarded the gross, the volume, the shiny new thing that’s produced with great speed. This hyper-competitive production model is piling up, at least, ten badly designed products and services for every good one. The other nine get piled onto the enormous and growing rubbish pills either on our intranets or in our landfills.

Collaboration slows us down and makes us think and test more. A sharing culture only works if the ideas are worth sharing. Slowly, we are turning away from the old models. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

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