Recently I watched the U.S. Super Bowl, the “world championship” of a game played mostly in one nation.
I enjoy U.S. football, but I admit that the Super Bowl was the first pro game I have seen all season. I did not even know which teams were playing until the day before, when I read that Bruce Springsteen was going to perform at halftime. It turned out to be a very exciting game, with players’ emotions running high.
I have come to expect high “emotions” from fans, who seemingly associate self-esteem with the outcome of a game. But it was refreshing to see the professional athletes themselves energized by the spirit of competition, instead of just by a paycheck.
Competition is everywhere.
In athletics, individuals compete for a starting position on a team. Teams compete for championships. Sports compete with other sports for attendance and TV advertising. Athletics compete with the arts and other forms of entertainment.
This type of competitive “scale up” is certainly not limited to sport.
In academe, competition occurs among individuals to be published, among departments for students, among colleges for university funding and among universities for reputation – sometimes determined by (you guessed it) the universities’ record on the gridiron!
In business, competition occurs among individuals for promotions within departments; among departments for funding within companies; among companies for market share, among industries for capital and talented people; and among cities to attract industries.
In government, competition is seen among individuals to be elected or appointed; among committees for appropriations; among political parties for public attention; among states for federal funding; among nations for natural resources and/or over ideology.
Bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states. It has always been thus.
How do we build bridges amidst all of this competition?
First, we must recognize that competition is often healthy. It causes humans to strive for excellence. It allows people and organizations to shine in ways that are unique and leads to achievement and innovation. It recognizes and celebrates diversity.
Next, we acknowledge that competition, at first glimpse, appears to inhibit bridge building. However, examined in a different light, we see that the components of any organization – university, industry, government, team – come together in a greater whole as the larger construct competes. Thus, we see people working together in departments, departments cooperating to make a company great and companies unifying as industries compete.
Call cooperation what you will – teamwork, integration, collaboration – it is fundamental to bridge building.
Competition taken to extremes – win at any cost, “my way or the highway,” self-righteous judgments about differing beliefs – is unhealthy and destructive. Unbridled competition can undermine integrity in athletics, lead to unprincipled leadership in business, cause academic breaches of ethics and promote physical conflicts between nations globally.
Likewise, on the other end of the spectrum, forced homogenization of any system dampens the individual desire to strive, inhibits growth and results in extreme control and power in the hands of a limited few who, ironically, often professed initially to believe in distribution of wealth and power.
Examples of both abound.
In our profession and our industry, competition is healthy.
Companies compete to advance technology and science, to secure leasehold positions and to improve industrial processes. Universities compete to advance research and educate students. Cities, states and nations compete to attract industry to further economic growth.
Taken to the extreme, particularly in the volatile price climate that we now live within, competition to survive has resulted in unethical leadership. Enron comes to mind.
This kind of competition has resulted in unhealthy rivalries between fuel industries that are both necessary for prosperity: think natural gas and coal. Policy makers are often presented either/or choices by over-exuberant lobbyists, and the result is that those same leaders think we can simply install wind turbines and solve our energy and environmental problem in the next few years. Competition can distort reality.
Collaboration also is healthy. Joint industry partnerships address major challenges on a scale that cannot be solved by one company alone. Industrial consortia support academic programs driving leading-edge research. The Advanced Energy Consortium , which I direct at the Bureau of Economic Geology, involves 10 major companies that compete fiercely in the market-place working together in a major, pre-competitive research environment.
Collaboration in government can lead to healthy compromise and thoughtful legislation. Unfortunately, statesmanship is often frustratingly absent in politics as elected officials vote along straight party lines, forgetting sometimes that they are elected to serve the people for the greater good of a nation or state, even if it puts at risk their own re-election.
Of course, collaboration can lead to cartels such as OPEC, which has a noble mission – to minimize price volatility – but also a record at times of serving its members’ self interests; a fine line to walk.
Taken further, cooperation can lead to collusion; illegal agreements intended to mislead, deceive or defraud.
Competition. Collaboration. Each powerful in its own right, but unhealthy at the limit.
Together do they create a paradox? Competitive collaboration? Collaborative competition?
I think the answer is most certainly “no.”
Enter Communication. When faced with a dilemma, open dialog immediately. Not e-mail, but in person – voice to voice. Establish quickly the concerns of all parties and well as the desires.
Seek a “trilemma” solution: What is it all parties need and how can working together not only meet the needs, but perhaps add new value that was not there before? Bring in an objective third party to offer suggestions. And finally, be willing to make real accommodations and true compromise.
In fact, when universities, companies, governments and professional societies work together and seek compromises to address the complex global challenges faced by our profession and industry, the result is more powerful and society better served.
A bridge worth building.