Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Competition is such a crucial concept in our daily lives. Free market economists see competition as a key element to their economic model. Socially, the results of capitalistic competition have been disastrous. There is positive and negative competition or at least one can agree while competition could be seen as something neutral as a concept, there are positive and negative effects of competition.

While competition is a crucial factor in economy and society, the amount of books written on this topic is relatively small. A simple search revealed that most articles deal with the concept of competition in sports and tend to give instructions to coaches on how to introduce, manage and train competition in their sports team. A typical article is this, published by Damon Burton and Thomas Raedeke in Sport Psychology for Coaches. Here is a simple and limited article on competition at the workplace.

In Webster competition is defined as
  • 1.a: the effort of two or more parties acting independently to secure the business of a third party by offering the most favorable terms
  • 1.b: active demand by two or more organisms or kinds of organisms for some environmental resource in short supply
  • 2: a contest between rivals

This definition is all "negative", it is about one-against-the-other, a zero-sum-game attitude, a fight for scarce resources, and rivalry. Why can't we define competition as something positive? How about a definition like this?
  • the effort of two or more independent parties to achieve a desired common result by comparing and contrasting independent ideas

I was criticized once for criticizing competition and labeling it as cut-throat, stab-in-the-back and winner-takes-it-all. Competition could be a positive force, but for most part in our economy it has a negative social impact. Discussing the topic I started wondering why we don't have two words, one for positive competition and one for negative competition. In the English language at least its definition seems to be describing a rather fierce force in a zero-sum game. Maybe other languages distinguish between competition leading to negative effects and competition leading to positive effects.

I am not against competition, we need competing ideas and we need freedom of choice between these ideas. The same for products, let the best product win. What we need is an open and fair competition that reflects human values and is based on respect for the others (the competing teams). A competition based on sharing which has the benefit of all in mind. Forced monopolies are usually not a good thing. One of the most urgent areas were we need to abolish a monopoly and need to introduce competition is at the heart of the monetary system. Let's legalize creation of money and give the FED some competition. 

That reminds me of code competitions and challenges to solve particular problems that are based on an open and positive competition. For example a mathematical problem is publicly posted to all competing teams together with a means of scoring a result. Different teams now start coding different solutions. Whenever a solution is available it is published online and rated on a public scoreboard. All teams can see all current algorithms and their score. All teams can and are encouraged to take existing solutions (source code) and improve on them, combine them with their own algorithms, and re-post these improved solutions. [Our economy would call that stealing ideas.] This iterative game stops when a defined time has passed or a defined goal regarding score has been reached. Astonishing creativity and results have come forward through such competitions. Some universities and companies nurture such challenges. Some events are called code-a-thon or similar where people from different companies come together usually for a day or two to cooperate and compete in a positive fashion to derive a common solution.

In a TED talk an education specialist explained that in a test the best results have been achieved by dividing a class in multiple groups, having them all in the same room, requiring that all share their current results at all time, encourage adopting ("stealing") others' ideas, and allowing team members to switch teams voluntarily whenever they wanted.

On Wikipedia the definition of competition is also in terms of a zero-sum game, as rivalry and it states that competition arises whenever two or more parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared. The page acknowledges the positive and negative competition. It labels the one as cooperative competition and the other as destructive competition. Co-operative competition is based upon promoting mutual survival and strives for a "everyone wins" solution through peaceful exchange and without violating other people. This is clearly the type of competition we must foster.

On a side note: The Wikipedia page makes also a reference to the term coopetition. At first glance it sounded like an attractive term for positive competition. At a second look though, it is not the right term as defined by some people. Webster does not recognize the term. Wikipedia defines coopetition as a dual-faced attitude of cooperating with the competitor (enemy) where victory seems impossible while at the same time continuing with destructive competition against the same competitor in other areas. So, the cooperation only stems from the realization that competition is futile and at the same time destructive competition continues. There is no voluntary cooperation in this at all. It is more or less forced cooperation as a last resort to survival. And still the mind set has not been changed as destructive cooperation is still followed as the principle way of doing business wherever possible. Furthermore, at a linguistic level US First claims a trade mark on the term. According to this definition and the legal claim on the term, coopetition is not what we need, and for lack of having found a better term, I will still need to refer to terms such as "positive competition" and "cooperative competition".

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