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07 April, 2014

Strong arguments for the bigger prize of cooperation, not competition

A Bigger Prize: why competition isn’t everything and how WE do better’, by Margaret Heffernan, Simon and Schuster UK, ISBN 978-1-47110-075-8.

‘A Bigger Prize: why competition isn’t everything and how WE do better’, by Margaret Heffernan
‘A Bigger Prize: why competition isn’t everything and how WE do better’, by Margaret Heffernan
There is an extraordinary but telling difference between the titles of the US and the UK editions of the new book A Bigger Prize by the Texan entrepreneur and business author Margaret Heffernan. While the UK edition’s subtitle reads Why competition isn’t everything and how WE do better, the US subtitle reads How we can do better than the competition. Competitiveness—beat the hell out of the opposition—is so ingrained in global corporate culture that the whole notion of moving beyond competition to something better simply isn’t in the lexicon or narrative. The US subtitle should simply read, in the spirit of Heffernan’s thesis, ‘do better than competition’, full stop. No ‘the’.

Her book is a robust appeal to go beyond the paucity of competition for profits’ sake. Competitiveness is bad for the body and the soul, from sport to education to pharmaceutical and scientific research. The win at all costs mentality in sport from childhood, rather than the sheer joy of playing, fuels a largely undetected drug abuse culture and turns American football from a contact sport to a collision sport, with long-term detrimental health consequences. Competition in science leads to excessive secrecy, fraud and plagiarism, to prevent competitors getting there first. Employees’ competition for success within large corporations prevents sharing of information and leads to a climate of fear that militates against the very creativity for which they have been originally recruited. No one dares step out of line. Competition drives down wages to exploitation levels and destroys trust.

Competition creates a culture of cost cutting that turns out to be deadly dangerous, as BP found to its great detriment. Competition to be the biggest in the world, fuelled by an overweening hubris, led to the debacle that was the Royal Bank of Scotland, for which tax payers are still paying the price. Banks are simply too big. Competing for size has led to factory farming of pigs and other animals which creates unforeseen health hazards, including MRSA.

When it comes to politics, Prime Minister’s Question time is a ‘schoolboy slugfest’ that is simply narcissistic and embarrassing. ‘It is hard to imagine a less meaningful way of judging solutions to complex problems than people screaming at each other across a table,’ Heffernan writes.

We do better not by competing but by cooperating. This leads to the bigger prize which should be the world’s new paradigm. Heffernan tells engaging stories to support her thesis. Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and juice—good for health—has become a global brand because the New England farmers decided they would co-operate together, sharing information about their crops, rather than compete against each other. This and other co-operatives and employee owned companies have consistently outperformed the economy as a whole. They reward ‘mutual assistance and support, openness and honesty’. Another fine example of this is Gripple, the prize-winning international, inventive company founded by Yorkshire businessman Hugh Facey, where everyone owns shares in the company and a spirit of inventiveness is positively nurtured.

Mapping the human genome has depended on thousands of scientists collaborating together; though even here a profit-driven science firm, Celera, became a fly in the ointment, patenting 6,500 genes. Even Adele’s massive hit album 21 depended on a team of 100 creative people who each had an input into its success.

But perhaps the most inane competitive league table is that of nations’ GDP, which, Heffernan’s point out, simply measures all economic outputs, whether they are healthy or detrimental to nations’ wellbeing. And anyway, economic growth is far too often unevenly distributed within nations. Instead what is needed is the Boston-pioneered Sustainable Economic Development Assessment; and ‘trickle up’ by which employees are paid a fair, living wage which helps to stimulate the economy as a whole.

It is hard to see how business organisations can move beyond the competitive spirit which drives efficiencies and offers consumer choice. But Heffernan’s book redresses the balance. The world’s safety, anyway, ‘lies in plurality.’ And ‘trust is valued more highly than secrets because giving away ideas is what makes them proliferate.’

This book contributes not only to the stock of the world’s social capital but also its ethical and spiritual capital. Policy makers should read it with diligence. Her moral arguments are compelling.

Michael Smith,
Head of business programmes, Initiatives of Change UK

'A Bigger Prize' is also reviewed on the 3rdi magazine website

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