Part 5: Does Competition Drive Collaboration? In conversation with Curt Madison

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 [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.

5.1 Collaboration: How to Make It Work
5.2 Collaboration: Trust Floats the Boat

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.

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  1. Janet great interview. How can I get in touch with Curt Madison as we might want him on one of our radio shows. It seems like a very interesting subject.

  2. Beth…you might enjoy some of the other posts in this series on collaboration which focuses more on the process within collaborative units. These c conversations are between artists and writers.

    Joan–what a generous idea! I’ll connect you to Dr. Madison via email.

    Janet Riehl

  3. Janet, your conversations focus mainly on collaboration between individuals, but Curt appears to be thinking as much or more in terms of systemic/organizational collaborations. These conversations about the “continuum” of cooperation (not getting in each other’s way) to collaboration (mutual support of goals) and concerted action (definition and joint pursuit of shared goals) resonate with my experiences some years ago working in the United Nations development system, where different agencies (like UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, WFP, FAO, etc) saw themselves more as rivals, in competition, than as partners. The usual relationship between agencies was avoidance, since when they met in the same place they were usually getting in each other’s way. The effort of “U.N. Reform” sought to change that, but the leadership and communication skills to do so were often not there. I think the effort would benefit from a step by step approach to build up a culture of collaboration between the agencies, from the ground up, starting by agencies making each other aware of what others are doing and agreeing to give moral support and not “to get in each other’s way.” Then reward collaborative efforts, for mutually supportive programming. To get to the final step of “concerted effort” needs visionary leadership of a type not usually cultivated in large bureaucracies, especially those whose leadership is determined by political processes of compromise between competing interests.

  4. Alan…thanks for your thoughtful, in-depth comment. Yes. The first four parts of this series on Riehlife and the three parts of the Creative Catalyst series on Telling Her Stories (part 3 to be posted in April)…deal with the collaborative unit. These 7 posts in the collaboration particularly focus on creative arts–writing, visual art, and other media.

    Curt weighs in on the systemic level. You have played at high levels of international bureaucracy…and, also at the village and national international development level. So, let’s see. Your corresponding hierarchy of moving away from rivalry in organizations toward concerted action would be: 1) Build a culture of collaboration by sharing information & pledging support; 2) reward mutual support; and 3) Seek & encourage visionary leadership. The constraining forces for visionary leadership in particular is rigidity & protectiveness.

    That certainly matches my experiences as an individual working in organizations. As a maverick player I found blockades at every turn. Rather than “out-of-the-box” thinking, my challenge was “in-the-box” thinking. The trick organizationally is not to think too far outside the box.

    I think Curt’s systemic model and yours can be applied to individuals working together. Curt’s three levels. And your antidotes to the blockades. It’s at the third level of visionary thinking and resolve leading to concerted action that system and individual come together. The collaborative unit will flounder in the face of destructive competition. When both collaborators support and share the same vision, then concerted action results.

    Janet Riehl

  5. Not quite thinking in an either/or mode, I believe that collaboration can be outside of the sphere of competition. It can arise purely out of collaboration for the sake of collaboration so as to reckon the act of collaboration a self-contained success. In writing, for example, my writer friends and I collaborate on unpaid projects and those which we know won’t bring us any significant publicity or sales. But collaborating for the sake of seeing a work completed by teamwork in itself becomes a successful, fun-to-do activity. So in matters not business-oriented, we can say that collaboration is free from the otherwise pressing grip of competition.

  6. Earnest,

    “Collaboration as a self-contained success.” Ooooo…I like that.

    Yes, often collaborating on a project becomes a work of art & an act of love. It’s the satisfaction of making something useful & sweet (the heart of good literature and art).

    In my business life with a large corporation I worked with a man who embodied this approach. It was our job and we got paid. But, something more was at stake: making something (a corporate newsletter) that made us and the entire organization happier.

    Janet Riehl

  7. What a thought provoking Q&A. I personally enjoy collaborating with others but I feel it may spark competition more so than be driven by it.

    Happy Friday!

  8. In going back to this post I realize I did not complete my thought. Collaboration is an extremely powerful experience and so much energy and creativity is birthed from the experience. In releasing my book,”Blast Off, The Surefire Success Plan To Launch Your Dreams Into Reality” in January of 2010, I collaborated with 25 other authors and experts. I met the most amazing people from all over the world who are now friends.
    It was the synergy of this collaboration that moved my book to #1 in 3 categories on Amazon. I feel that competition is a very healthy thing and when we give business to others, just like energy, it always flows back. Most of my joint venture partners were in similar fields and everyone benefitted from the one campaign.


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