This 2-part conversation with Curt Madison marks the fifth and sixth posts for our February and March Blog-of-the-Month investigation into the nature of collaboration.
Curt Madison is a buddy from High School. This fact is distinctive in that he is the only person I continue to be in touch with from any of my schooling—either high school or colleges. We reconnected at the Alton [Senior] High School class of 1967 40th reunion. Over a malt Curt told me that what I call Jazz Conversations are known more formally as appreciative inquiry. The conversations here are like that. You can read his fascinating bio at the end of each conversation.
Does Competition Drive Collaboration? In Conversation with Curt Madison
CM: The greatest motivator for collaboration is competition. To collaborate you want to have competition.
JGR: That makes no sense to me. Explain.
CM: Why would you want to collaborate in the first place? To be better, right? Collaboration adds a layer of overhead beyond just doing something yourself. Collaboration requires communication with all its pitfalls.
JGR: And, to have more fun.
CM: Well, if we are talking about entertainment, then sure, it is more fun to do something with a friend than to do it alone. But if we take a larger view, remember people in the business world also collaborate. But they do it for a different reason. It has to do with where ideas come from and general efficiency. Let’s contrast competition with monopoly. We can apply it to writing. How do things get published?
JGR: Quality is at play, as is finding a match between market and material. There’s a degree of subjectivity, too, in how work is chosen to be published.
CM: So the writing is at different levels for different markets. Sometimes it is crucial to be absolutely the best—because there is a limiting market. Sometimes it is a matter of being appropriate to the goals of a group. When you write the minutes of a meeting for your own church group, the goal is to get down what is required. When you write a history of churches, the goal is to appeal to an audience that has a choice of what to read.
What if the only thing that kept you from writing more was typing faster? Would having another person typing produce twice the material, thus doubling your chance of being published?
JGR: No. That’s just stenography.
CM: There has to be some standard of what makes the work better. If you want to be published in any venue you have to be better than what could replace your work. Collaboration can make people more successful.
JGR: Hmmm. So you’re saying that without competition there’s no reason to collaborate because you wouldn’t have to be any better than you are? I’m not sure about that.
CM: In a monopoly work is ordered to be done because it’s appropriate. Employees in a monopoly can only stare morosely at the wall wondering if their work coincides with an enforced set of appropriate standards. Dull, or interesting by chance.
A monopoly (and a vacuum) is not natural. A monopoly exists only because it was created to exist. A monopoly serves a predetermined need – usually as long as it can hold on. Competition, on the other hand, is a way to constantly re-investigate fit and efficiency.
JGR: So, you’re saying that competition opens possibility?
CM: Yes. There’s a search for what hasn’t been thought of so new ideas and elements come in.
JGR: What about famous inventors? Aren’t they driven by the hunt for truth or new territory? Isn’t there an intrinsic value? Isn’t it fun to invent?
CM: Sure it is fun to invent. But look at the story of inventions. How many times have you read a story about a person who produced a great invention and then was cheated out of the rewards of wealth and fame? Why is that even a story if the goal is purely intrinsic?
JGR: Well, yeah. They have to eat.
CM: If there were a better method of coming up with new ideas and gaining a reward, wouldn’t you choose it? And, here is a question, “What if each person had his or her own agenda for work.” Is that collaboration?
JGR: That’s only half of collaboration.
CM: Clearly we are getting to a more nuanced sense of collaboration. Now we have half collaboration. OK, let’s say Ford is trying to make money selling cars. They hire a Chinese company to make tires. The Chinese engineers design tires for SUVs. But to make the tires cheaper, the Chinese company does not employ a marketing department. They like to sell to one company without overhead. Has the tire company been hired by Ford to make tires? Or has the tire company hired Ford to market their tires. Linking the two enterprises results in mutual efficiencies.
JGR: But, that still doesn’t fit my definition of collaboration. There are still two separate agendas.
CM: OK. Here’s another shot at the nuance. Let’s say two people are car designers. Each one has only $50. They both need software that costs $100 available at www.AnyCarDesign.com [fantasy site].One person wants to design a Hummer, and the other wants to design a motorcycle. The same software can do both.
They go out for coffee even though they don’t particularly like to talk. They find that they both share the goal of getting the means of production. And they find that they both have the same problem designing a universal joint. So they pool their money, buy the software, and design a joint. They “collaborate” to complete their vehicles.
Together they found a solution to overcome an obstacle. They created a single thing. They collaborated on a means to the end. But their end goals of designing a Hummer and a motorcycle are vastly different.
But wait there is more. Why not just call MIT? Surely there is an engineer there who could design a joint for them. They don’t because they don’t have money. They could give up on doing it, or put heads together and do it themselves. If they don’t do it together, they have to drop out of competition.
They either retreat from competition or stay in the game. They have to collaborate to become more competitive.
JGR: What if there isn’t any competition?
CM: Back to our contrast of competition versus monopoly. In a monopoly our heroes only work on problems deemed important enough to be solved by the appropriateness functions of the monopoly. This state of affairs prevents disruptive innovations, the messiness, and the oily, slippery enjoyment of life. If there’s no competition, the organization loses one of major motivators for collaboration. It is possible to look at collaboration as a strategy to be employed with its costs and rewards.
JGR: I don’t’ like your argument. Collaboration is something creative happening that people are doing together. You’re talking at a systemic and organizational level. I believe that within the collaborative unit that competition is destructive.
CM: Let’s talk some more about when collaboration is fun and when it is a pain in the ass. The next topic could be intellectual bandwidth.
Part 2 of our conversation discusses degrees of capacity for working together (cooperation, collaboration, and concerted effort).
You might also read our Creative Catalyst column written by Stephanie Farrow and myself. Here are the first two posts of a three-part cycle for Telling Her Stories, the Story Circle Network blog.
Curt Madison’s Bio
Curt Madison came to Alaska in 1971 direct from an undergraduate psychology degree at Stanford University. In Alaska, Curt has worked as a riverboat pilot, filmmaker, and biographer collaborating on 22 biographies of elders in rural Alaska with Yvonne Yarber. He has a MA in Political Science from University of Hawaii-Manoa (1976) which included thesis research in Samoa and a PhD from the University of Arizona (1999) in Communication. Dr. Madison flies a two-seat antique airplane on cross country trips whenever his heart needs restarting. He currently is the Director of eLearning Program Development at the School of Management, University of Alaska Fairbanks.