It was a Business and Ethics class offered as part of the Alumni Weekend at the University of Denver. We had just completed an interactive game in which 12 teams of 4-5 people were lumped into three larger groups. Within the larger group the object of the game was for each team to gain the most points during 10 rounds by choosing X or Y. The teams didn’t know what the others chose until the spokesperson called it out to the point-keeper at the front of the room.
Four scenarios were offered:
If all four teams chose X, each team loses 1 point.
If 3 teams choose X, they gain 2 points and the team that chose Y loses 2 points.
If 2 teams choose X they gain 1 point and the team that choose Y lose 3 points.
If all 4 teams choose Y, everyone gains 1 point.
When the game began the room buzzed with voices. How do we out-think the other teams? What strategy gains the most points? Obviously the only win-win situation was the last scenario, but without being able to collaborate, how to express to the other teams a willingness to choose what otherwise looked like a losing proposition?
My teammates and I brainstormed. They wanted to compete. We couldn’t trust the other teams. Everyone was going to choose X.
I told them that if we chose Y, we might lose for a few rounds until our other three counterparts figured out that we wanted to collaborate. Then they would catch on. They could surely see a win-win situation.
My teammates were skeptical but acquiesced. We’d try it my way for a few rounds.
As the game went on some groups said they’d choose one way but then did something different for personal gain. Other teams stopped trusting them and ceased engaging in conversation. They were ostracized.
Afterwards, general discussion on competitive vs collaborative personality traits commenced.
A woman at the back of the room likened competitive personalities and behavior to that of marathon runners. She said that marathon runners train and run only to win; it’s the winning that matters. Business is the same as sports and that’s why only competitive people win.
I sat shaking my head. “Bullshit” rolled from my tongue and the gentlemen flanking me chuckled softly.
When she finished talking I leaned forward and waved my hand. “Excuse me,” I called, “excuse me!”
The professor gave me the floor.
“I’m a runner. I’ve run marathons and ultras and I have to disagree with the metaphor. Only about five people at any given marathon have any real chance of WINNING the race. The rest of us are out there because we’re pushing and competing against ourselves.
Runners support and cheer for each other. We motivate each other and we’re there when things go wrong. We don’t sabotage or hope for anyone’s downfall. Running is about health and personal boundaries. It’s a collaborative sport, not a competitive one. We want each other to be their very best. If you have any doubt get out on a racecourse and listen to people say “Good job”, or “Looking good” when you streak by at mile 24. People in business that have figured out how to collaborate do better than people that plot other people’s downfall.”
I could have gone on longer but stopped there. I was tired of hearing about how competitive business is, how it’s each man for himself and how we need to step on the other person for personal gain. Excuse me for the word again, but I call Bullshit.
Without being able to trust each other a person or company becomes an island unto themselves. When they need help there’s no one to turn to. When they inevitably falter, the wolves will be there to finish the job.
Runners aren’t like that. Runners push boundaries but they’re internal and personal. When they get up in the pre-dawn darkness they’re not looking to see who else is up. They do it for themselves. They log the miles because they want to. They miss Friday night dancing and drinks to hit the road or trail the following morning for a long haul. They meet up with friends, encourage each other through injury and absolute bonking, and crew and pace each other for super-human feats of endurance. Runners pull together to elevate the human spirit, not tear it down. That’s the world I live in. I believe in collaboration in personal feats of strength and endurance, and I have to believe that collaboration in business only makes industry stronger.
We need each other.