Learning How Not to Compete

From a very young age we’re taught about the virtues of competition, about how competing ferociously in every aspect of life leads to success and winning.

From Ayn Rand we learn about the “virtue of selfishness,” a hallmark of the all-out egotistical, competitive spirit that was on display to the Nth degree in the recent debt-ceiling debacle. That was a textbook example—in the starkest, unhealthiest and costliest manner possible—of delusional I-win-you-lose competitive thinking that benefits no one, especially the American people.

What got me going on this was a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Learning Not to Compete,” by Ron Ashkenas, a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization.

Given the current economic, outsourcing and political climate, he asks some highly pertinent questions, such as: “What if beating the competition was no longer the most significant key to success? How could we turn off our competitive nature, or use it only at the right times? And how would we know that we are on the right track if we couldn’t define ourselves largely in terms of being better than others?”

Those questions, he notes, are more practical than philosophical, because “the world has become so interconnected that many of our traditional notions of what it takes to ‘win’ no longer apply.”

As the economist Umair Haque crisply notes: “The art of competition is in danger of devolving to little more than a brutish exercise in racing to a bottom already as packed as a Tokyo subway train at rush hour.”

Indeed in the globalized economy, complex supply chain, manufacturing and logistics arrangements mean that “competitors” are often also partners. Ashkenas cites as examples: “Pharmaceutical firms license compounds to each other and co-promote products in different markets. Financial services companies co-manage loans and share risks. Competitors in the auto, computer, and apparel industries frequently rely on the same suppliers and distributors, and to keep them healthy need to make sure that the overall industry does well.”

This tells me that the nature of competition is changing and that the old dog-eat-dog rules no longer work.

Ashkenas continues: “As organizations have become more global and more reliant on cross-functional processes, teamwork and collaboration are increasingly becoming the currency of success. Organizations can’t operate effectively unless people share information, work together to solve problems, and help each other get the job done.”

Those words are in the Vested Outsourcing wheelhouse of collaboration and trust to achieve the win-win by reaching mutually beneficial outcomes – and not continually browbeating partners on price and production to achieve a short-term, one-sided “win.”

The message is to learn how not to compete, to find a new competitive paradigm.

As Ashkenas states, and as I stress in both Vested Outsourcing books, for most of us competition is ingrained, and in many cases we’re conditioned to make it the default path to success. “Yet, as the world becomes more complex,” he says, “learning how not to compete could become the key to winning.”

There is a better, Vested way to interact with our business partners. Compete? Sure! But play nice!


  1. Love this. I speak to fellow subcontractors and talk about this constantly. You can waste so much energy competing. Put that energy to better use.

Speak Your Mind