John Hagel – The balance between competition and collaboration

I love paradoxes. I’m glad that you keep bringing up paradoxes. I think it’s a very important paradox and actually from my view we never get performance and improvement without a combination of collaboration and competition, or it’s very hard to sustain that kind of performance improvement; that you need a balance between the two in order to drive rapid and sustained performance improvement. One of the areas that we spend a lot of time investigating in this context is extreme sports where there is a relentless focus on performance improvement. These athletes are constantly challenging themselves and challenging each other to get to the next level of performance. And you find very interesting blends between competition and collaboration, I mean we spend a lot of time on big wave surfing; and if you’ve ever been to a big wave surfing competition there’s extraordinary competition to get the winning position.

And yet on a day to day basis this big wave surfers are constantly collaborating with each other, helping each other to figure out what they can do to get better at what they’re doing, and again I think one of the elements that supports this balance between completion and collaboration is the passion of the athletes. They are deeply, deeply passionate about what they’re doing and that drives them to get to the next level of performance, but it also drives them to connect with other people who share their passion and they are drawn to them. They want to learn from them. They want to learn from each other. One of the interesting stories that recently occurred was there’s a major competition in big wave surfing at Mavericks here in California and they hold it once a year.

In one of the recent competitions, the three semi-finalist were paddling out to ride the wave that would determine who would get the prize, who would be the top performer. And as they paddled out they were talking with each other and they decided that whoever won, they would share the prize, the money and the reward because they said “Look, we’re all at the top of our game. We all deserve this so let’s share the prize.” And yet they competed very aggressively to figure out who would be the winner of that final wave. I mean it was important to them in terms of pride and demonstrating their performance to get to that next level, but they were sharing the prize with each other at the same time. So I think it’s an interesting example of the balance between competition and collaboration.

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