Competition, collaboration and leadership

Ewan McIntosh is blogging on collaboration at the moment and his words – and the discussions they’re catalysing – are well worth a read. I don’t intend to cover all the ground he is treading but I would like to pick up on one topic around which we exchanged comments: competition, collaboration and leadership. I want to raise it here because I think it brings to light a healthy debate about the role of competition and leadership in education. As an aside, it is also a great example of how to develop one’s thinking using a blog.

Ewan cites Morten Hansen’s book Collaboration (check out Morten’s new book ‘Great by Choice’ as well) and discusses one of the six ways (that Morten lists in his book) in which collaboration may fail, that is collaborating in a hostile environment. Ewan writes that schools exhibit many of the characteristics of the hostile environment and that this may explain why we see relatively little collaboration between schools and even less between teachers within schools. I pick up on his comments (using different colours to make it easier to follow):

Excerpt from blog by Ewan McIntosh: “Sony was a company that took pride in its decentralised specialist divisions, divisions whose pride led to them competing against each other. When five divisions were asked to collaborate to create a new music behemoth, Sony Connect, the result was disastrous.

The personal computer division based in Tokyo, the portable audio team behind the Walkman, the flash memory player team, Sony Music in the US and Sony Music back in Japan just couldn’t work together, so strong was their competition. The PC and Walkman groups released their own competing portable music players, and the Music and other electronics divisions of the company released three competing music download portals. The US group wanted to use flash memory and the MP3 format. The Japan group wanted to use minidisc and Sony’s proprietary ATRAC format for music downloads. By May 2004, a very disconnected Sony Connect finally launched and was taken apart by the media and users.

In the meantime, Apple innovated its narrow, well thought-through line of MP3 player products with no competition worth the name. Apple’s divisions had, through Steve Jobs and a culture of unity, collaborated on one perfect player. Sony’s interior competition had decimated any chance of creating one dream competitive product.

So, then, what does this mean for education? In a school there are many competitive units: individual teachers have, traditionally, been the kings or queens of their manor, the closed-door profession meaning that what happens in their classroom, good or bad, is their responsibility. The result can be a competitive one – “my kids”, “my class”, “my results”. Where teachers are recompensed on performance in any way, even in the form of feedback from superiors, this heightens the sense of competitiveness, making collaboration between teachers in a school impossible. The ingredients of competition – closed doors, one-teacher-one-class, rewards and praise for good performance – may have to be dismantled first, before collaboration can be encouraged.”

Comment by Phil Dawson: “I’d love to see hard evidence for the assertions put forward by Morten T. Hansen. They feel to me to be correlated with non-collaboration rather than causal. Competitive units cannot collaborate? I disagree and I think analysis of the nature of competition bears out my view.

The key psychological variable is goal alignment. Competition is social goal-oriented behaviour. Competitors become collaborators when both social and practical goals are aligned. For example, a competitive situation can be transformed into a collaborative one if individuals adopt a shared group affiliation (education rather than school) and perceive a shared opportunity for social gain (recognition or reputational enhancement) that is, at least, not in conflict with other group affiliations (the situation in Sony).

Through the BSF programme, I saw schools collaborate very effectively as they recognised their shared interests were served by behaving as a coherent group rather than individual schools. In fact, I think the removal of competitive elements is a mistake because I think, if focused appropriately, competition is also an engine of innovation and creativity. Successful businesses collaborate and compete in equal measure and I would say the same is true of schools. Effective leaders are, I think, a more important factor in establishing a healthy balance between competition and collaboration.”

Comment by Ewan McIntosh: “I think the notion of taking away competition is an interesting one, for which there is a LOT of evidence, particularly in the education of girls, whereas with boys competitive elements are often seen as helping progress.

Where (generally) men have not seen competition help is in the cockpit. This is why, when landing and taking off, it is often the copilot flying the plane while the pilot gets ready to comment. This became a rule of flying thumb after a terrible Air Mexico accident when the copilot was too nervous to fight with the hierarchy of the pilot – the competitive element inspired by a hierarchy led to the plane flying into the sea instead of the runway.

In Hansen’s book there are ample examples from the professional world and business world showing why competition, more often than not, destroys collaboration, but this is because the competition is INTERNAL. He argues that competition, to help collaboration thrive, needs to be directed outside the organisation: so a school staff uniting to get something (at the expense of another school getting it); a district of schools uniting (so that other districts get less); a country of districts collaborating (so that other countries or commercial organisations don’t realise the same gains).

Competition and collaboration are not mutually exclusive – but the competition needs to be directed OUTSIDE the organisation, and it is this competition, WITHIN the institution that will break collaborations. It’s also this kind of competition, I’d argue, that we see most often inside schools and inside districts.”

Ewan McIntosh update to blog: “Competition within an institution breaks collaboration. But competition and collaboration are not mutually exclusive. If a leader can unite an organisation in collaboration and turn competitiveness to the outside, then the collaboration will work very well – think: football teams, corporations, or a country of school districts uniting to realise the benefits of scale that come from a nationwide online learning community, rather than letting commercial organisations pick up the financial benefits by uniting to pick off 32 Local Authorities at once.)”

Comment by Phil Dawson: “I agree that the issue identified in the cockpit of planes (first I think with North Korean airline pilots who are almost always ex-military) is about hierarchy (status). Although the purpose of having two pilots in the cockpit is to provide a cross-checking and therefore resilient environment, North Korean co-pilots would not challenge their captains because their military training and culture placed very high value on the chain of command (for general review of cockpit dynamics see: Status and Cockpit Dynamics: A Review and Empirical Study 1998, by Milanovich, Driskell, Stout & Salas). As a consequence, captains became the single point of failure and the airline had a poor safety record. However, this was not manifested as competitive pressure in the cockpit; quite the reverse: it manifested as dominant/submissive behaviour.All people (both sexes) are socially hierarchical but the manifestation of this behaviour may be different in boys and girls. Hierarchy and competition are discrete but linked concepts in psychology, both of which, if undirected, may lead to conflict.

My point is that the boundary between outside and inside is not definitive. It is relative and fluid and may be manipulated. Hansen’s examples (picked to make his point I think) are – in my opinion – the consequence of poor management, culture and leadership, not an inherent incompatibility between internal competition and collaboration.”

Comment by Peter Hirst: “Enjoying this series so far Ewan. Thought I’d link you to an article that intrigued me and certainly got a lot of comments in the US. The main basis is that by removing competition in Finnish schools collaboration thrives and they succeed – there’s no private schools, no school league tables, no performance pay and no standardised tests…”

Ewan McIntosh update to blog: “It is no surprise, therefore, that international collaborations of the kind that eTwinning encourages might work better for teachers and schools than collaborating closer to home, but the question that now remains, is collaborating for what? If there’s nothing to be lost through competition, there is also, perhaps, a perception that there is nothing to be gained. Cue: collaboration for collaboration’s sake.”

Comment by Phil Dawson: “I strongly recommend reading Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? By coincidence I mentioned it on Twitter only last week. Having read it, I think the key point Sahlberg makes is that Finland’s education system is successful because it it is uniquely egalitarian and every young person believes she or he will be treated equally and fairly. It creates a healthy meritocracy. I’d venture to suggest though that this does not mean there’s no competition; just that the playing field is a level one and that the competition does not manifest itself in a culture of failure. Healthy competition is when one’s reaction to others’ success is to be inspired.”

OK, so that’s where we’ve got to so far… I would just sum up by saying I often ‘discuss’ by adopting a standpoint that is (slightly) more extreme than my actual view. I find it helpful to test how far an opinion might be stretched before it breaks. In this case, the key points that I’m continuing to think about are the role of good leadership in creating a balanced culture of collaboration and competition, both inside and outside an organisation.

I’m also interested in how competition can be a positive and creative force, rather than a destructive one. I think that there is wariness in education of the concept of competition that arises from the assumption that it is about winners and losers rather than finding creative solutions to problems. Once again, I believe leaders have an important role in steering the culture of their organisations to be about healthy and inspiring competition.

UPDATE: Check out this video by Rachel Botsman on ‘Collaborative Consumption’. She has a really progressive view on web-enabled collaboration per the likes of airbnb.com and rabbit.com. The collaboration is a product of both the material value and the social capital it builds. Trust is a vital part of collaboration because it means we understand and accept that the group’s goals are aligned. Reputation is a primer for trusting relationships and therefore for collaboration.

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