A popular story in business tells of two hikers who wake up in the middle of the night when they realise a tiger is pacing near their tent. When one of the hikers grabs his running shoes, the other warns that he couldn’t possibly outrun a tiger. The first hiker replies that all he has to do is outrun his friend.
This story reduces the competitive business environment to a brutal, survival-of-the-fittest contest. By immediately going for his shoes rather than thinking how he might collaborate with his partner, the first hiker demonstrates opportunistic and individualistic behaviour.
In this action, he has made the assumption that his partner will also behave opportunistically.
This individualistic approach has become so common that the American Psychiatric Association has labelled the extreme as a specific personality type: ‘Homo Economicus’ - a sociopath who is typified by a willingness to lie and exploit to achieve personal aims.
We seem to think about innovation in the same way when we talk of the innovation race
. There appears to be an expectation that the environment will be highly competitive, that only the best ideas and entrepreneurs will survive, and that it will be a case of each ‘man’ for himself.
Where does this expectation come from? And is this the best way to think about innovation?
The problem is that we are getting mixed messages from contemporary organisations. Individuals are rewarded for coming up with and implementing new ideas by individual bonuses. Individual IP is protected. Yet at the same time corporations will typically espouse the importance of collaboration.
It’s similar to the way many reality TV programs, such as Survivor,
are advertised as team events, as if the goal is for individuals to work together to achieve unified team outcomes, but the truth is they are individual competitions.
The big twist in many reality TV shows (such as Survivor
or The Apprentice
) comes in the last episode when the whole team is brought back and the finalist has to harness the power of the team to achieve the task. Those who burned their bridges along the way will face the consequences at this point.
So which approach best supports organisation innovation: competitive individualism or collaborative collectivism?
The transition from hunters to herders
Innovation has been found to require both an individual focus on generating ideas, and a collaborative focus on synthesizing ideas along with developing and implementing solutions. It’s not a matter of choosing one or the other – we need both.
These different motivations create ambiguities that can work against each other if the individual is pushing towards individualised goals and outcomes, or can work in harmony if the individual ensures that the momentum is towards a common goal.
Historically, nomadic hunter-gatherers who had searched for their food individually or in small groups became more collectivist when they recognised the advantages of working together to hunt for larger animals.
Once people adopted an agrarian lifestyle, they became almost exclusively collectivist, as agricultural practices and limited resources meant they needed to cooperate to innovate in order to survive.
Wired to work together and apart
A study in this area has revealed that we are neurologically wired for both competition and cooperation. What’s really interesting is that when we engage in these activities we are actually accessing the same parts of the brain.
Both cooperation and competition have been found to help humans to make choices about the best courses of action in new situations and to monitor that action (executive functions), as well as predicting the behaviour of others in social situations (mentalising).
There are, however, some significant differences between the two states of mind. Competition requires more energy for processing (indicated by more medial prefrontal activity), while cooperating appears to be more socially rewarding (indicated by the activation of the medial orbitofrontal area).
This means that there are natural systems in place to reward cooperation — so long as we can deal with that competitive urge, which impacts our ability to collaborate effectively and ‘drains the brain’.
From an evolutionary perspective, the dynamic neurological interplay between competition and cooperation makes sense. Cooperation among individuals has been needed for security, such as to meet basic needs for food gathering and mate selection and for protection against predators. Competition provides individuals with selective advantages in these areas.
Facing the tigers together
Instead of thinking about innovation as an individual race, or as survival of the fittest, perhaps it’s time to start thinking of it as a collaborative
race – a race that we will have to survive together
in order to overcome the planet’s challenges.
That way we can maximise on the innovative advantages of both the individual and the team and help each other to deal with the many ‘tigers’ we confront.
Gaia and Andrew Grant are founders and Directors of Tirian International and keynote speakers who work with organisations from Fortune 500 companies through to not-for-profits worldwide. They have authored The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley), Who Killed Creativity?... And how can we get it back? (Wiley), and more than 30 corporate educational resources.
Corporate culture tends to be highly competitive. It often comes down to the survival of the fittest, which can lead to a self-survival mentality.