For many years, I’ve spoken about the great promise of seeing organizations as living systems – a view that charts a path to employee engagement, customer loyalty, and organizational resilience. Every once in a while, though, someone will cynically point out that not everything is rosy in living systems. “There’s competition in nature,” they point out. “Fierce, dog-eat-dog competition.” Yes, competition is part of life, I answer.  But this is always an unsatisfying response. And the living systems view loses some of its luster.

Lately, I’m hearing the word ‘competition’ spoken with similar disdain, not from heckling cynics but from those who share my passion for new ways of seeing organizations. “Life’s core pattern is cooperation, not competition,” they proclaim. “Collaboration is the smart strategy of this era.”

It was this view that caused heated debate to erupt recently when my partners and I realized that some of our collaborators (and friends) were gearing up to offer services extremely similar to our own. When I suggested the need for competitive strategy, it was as if I had proposed something short-sighted and outdated at best, vile and vulgar at worst. “I choose collaboration over competition,” said one partner in somewhat indignant response.

For the cynics, then, it seems that competition is perceived as the ugly, dark side of nature – one that frightens us and that we wish didn’t exist. For the dreamers, it’s something that we deny and disparage as unenlightened, a threat to the dream.

To me, though, competition is about choice. I chose to have potato pancakes for breakfast this morning, rather than French toast. Those were competing choices. Eating both would have been excessive. Combining them collaboratively would have been less than delicious. So I picked one. The same happens in the world of work, and in every facet of our lives. The existence of another group offering similar services represents a potentially competing choice for our clients.

At the same time, it’s a false dichotomy to insist that we have to choose between collaborating and competing. Both can be true (as is often the case in living systems thinking). My partners and I will surely continue to collaborate with our friends, even as they offer competing services. After all, we are passionate about the same things. What is more, we’ll all benefit from our competition, as we each become clearer about what makes us distinct and as we indirectly push each other further toward excellence. The world will benefit from the diversity of our offerings. And along the way, it’s very likely that we’ll find our services to be complementary rather than competing.

Game designer Bernie DeKoven pointed me to this fabulous blog post that perfectly expresses this point:

Compete? Nah, Let’s Playfully Create! by Brian Johnson

“The best athlete wants his opponent at his best. The best general enters the mind of his enemy. The best businessman serves the communal good. The best leader follows the will of the people. All of them embody the virtue of non-competition. Not that they don’t love to compete, but they do it in the spirit of play. In this they are like children and in harmony with the Tao.” ~ Lao Tzu from The Tao Te Ching

Brilliant. Did you know the origin of the word compete has nothing to do with our modern idea of going “against” someone else? Noperz. The word comes from the Latin competere and means to ‘strive or contend for (something),’ TOGETHER *not* against!! (from com- ‘together’ + petere ‘aim at, seek’).

Personally, I think the whole idea of “competing against” someone is absurd. As one of my mentors once told me, “Until you’re cloned, you have no competition.” My intention is always to simply go within myself and have fun striving to most fully express myself in service to the world. I spend NO time doing “competitive analysis” or worrying what other people are doing aside from recognizing cool stuff that I might want to do more of.

How ‘bout you? Are you finding yourself overly concerned with striving *against* peeps? Can you focus more on being a creator fully expressing yourself and giving your gifts to the world in the spirit of play?

Striving together in the spirit of play. I love it. I wonder if both the cynics and the dreamers could get behind that definition of competition.

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