December 14, 2017

Is our instinctive, defensive response to competition the right one?

When the going gets tough, when markets contract, when budgets decline, when promotion is rare, our instinctive response is to retreat and defend what we have. Parts of our brain that kept us alive in a more dangerous world respond vigorously to the threats we perceive. They compel us to withdraw from any circumstance where we could be vulnerable, such as a situation where we share our knowledge and resources in collaborating with another.

This response to threat can be so strong it’s barely a conscious process at all. The strength of our defensive reaction leaves us with a certainty that it’s unquestionably the right one.

But is it? Does our hasty retreat from collaboration serve us?

Perhaps the most effective response to scarcity and threat is the exact opposite, to collaborate, to share what we have, to form new teams, to focus on our strengths, and allow others to do on our behalf what they do best, even though that requires sacrifice. Then the whole may succeed on the bigger stage and our individual outcome may be better than if we’d acted alone.

Suppose it does serve us to collaborate: How do we make this happen? How do we take our people along with us?

One key is articulating a compelling future so that the long term gain seems worth the short term pain.

We need high levels of integrity and to seek that quality in others. To be trusted and so involved in the best opportunities, we need to be seen as a mature and honest collaborator.

We need the skills to work intelligently with the interests and values of all and balance these to optimise the whole for the ultimate gain of all.

Are our defensive responses to increased competition with colleagues, other departments, other organizations, other countries, the responses that should guide us? Or are we better to resist our primitive instincts and collaborate rather than defend? And if so, how?

How do you respond to competition?

There ain’t no magic bullets

Scottish Parliament ChamberGreat discussion with the team from Unipart led by John Neill, Group Chief Executive of the Unipart Group of Companies at the Business in the Parliament conference in Edinburgh (12 November 2010). John talked about the benefits of a largely employee-owned businesses making learning and development choices for the medium to long term, rather than to meet the short term pressures of the City.

The success of the “Unipart Way” is based on engaging people and taking them on learning journey.  Only 15% of our people are engaged, on average. Meanwhile we have a large productivity “gap” in both the private and public sectors, which, if closed even partly, would completely compensate for the forthcoming reductions in public spending.

Do we need a crisis to get change started? Not necessarily, according to John. Most important thing is to set out a compelling vision of how things can be. To influence others not yet on the journey, show them a working model. That overcomes the difficulty of understanding thing we are being told rather than shown.

Success take practice. An orchestra depends on the 10,000+ hours of work of the individual musicians (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) to play Beethoven’s Ninth (or any other great work). So it is with other organisations. High performance needs a commitment to learning and effort applied to practice.

There ain’t no magic bullets.