Maverick competition in business. I’m a bit of a maverick when it comes to competition in business. You see, I don’t think I have any. Now, before you accuse me of all sorts of arrogance, let me explain. It’s not that I don’t recognise that there are other people out there offering the same things that I offer to the same potential clients, it’s that I don’t care.
Firstly, there is more than enough business to go round (even now, as I write in Covid-19 lockdown). The proportion of the accessible market that I need to eat, very nicely thank you, is minuscule.
Secondly, competition is an abstract concept; a label we chose to apply (or withhold) but it comes with all sorts of connotations that I don’t think are necessarily helpful. But coming to this point in my own thinking required me to review a long-held belief. Ever since I was a boy I’ve believed in competition and trying to win. I would shout at the television if I thought my favourite footballers or boxers weren’t trying hard enough and I became disillusioned when the various school sports teams I played in endured a losing streak.
Later as an adult I carried this attitude into games I played with my nephews or my daughter, believing that “letting them win” was the ultimate way of patronising them and that nothing would be sweeter for them than knowing they’d genuinely beaten an adult at something.
In my early working life I was regularly persuaded that “healthy competition” was the way to motivate individuals and teams to hit their targets and so on, and this is where my thinking became challenged.
Work is not like sport or games. Many people at work are not the remotest bit interested in competition, preferring instead to provide a quality product or really good service to their customers. When regional sales teams compete against each other, who really wins in the end? When individuals in teams compete against each other how does this affect team development in the long term? How can we possibly ever ‘win’ when the game never ends?
In my view the only way we are to prevail in the current climate is to become brilliant at learning. There is so much change these days (and it’s only going to increase and speed up), that only by continually learning (and unlearning) can we hope to contend.
Unfortunately, competition can be a great impediment to learning.
Recently I heard a youth team coach from the English Football Association bemoaning the fact that English kids don’t learn the game properly in the way they do, in say, Spain or Germany, because there is too much focus on winning (or more accurately, not losing). Accompanied by parents and so on yelling from the side lines, our kids learn to cope with pressure by playing safe and never being creative or taking a risk.
The same thing can happen at work in the face of inappropriate competition. Staff member turns on staff member, team turns on team and we forget who the real ‘competition’ is.
The other problem is that too much focus on competition has us always evaluating performance in relative terms, (ie we must be doing well because we’re better than them). But what if we measure performance is absolute terms (ie how good could we become if we truly fulfilled our potential?)
In a race without a finish line, why worry who is in front or behind? it’s a waste of psychic energy.
Surely it’s better to focus on creating the strongest, fastest, fittest business we can? Wouldn’t our customers prefer we were thinking about them rather than competitor businesses?