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Bruce Holland

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Cooperation vrs Competition

A recent Strategic Snippet discussed networks and networking and how these owe more to cooperation and collaboration than to competition.

I said that it boils down to a worldview that the world is one of plenty, the belief that if I give you some of my pie I will get it back tenfold.

I ended by asking you how you reacted to this idea intuitively. Most people agreed but at least a quarter strongly disagreed, with comments like: Competition and greed in my view are fairly basic and obvious reactions to the need to survive in a dangerous world.

So, lets move beyond intuition with some evidence drawn from the science of evolution!

There is growing support among scientists that evolution had far more to do with cooperation than brutal competition (survival of the fittest).

Scientists are finding that life did not take over the planet by combat but by cooperation, partnership, and networking.

It's becoming clear that ecosystems achieve stability and resilience through the richness and complexity of their ecological webs. The greater their biodiversity, the more resilient they will be. And the exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by pervasive cooperation.

An ecosystem is a flexible, ever-fluctuating network. Its flexibility is a consequence of multiple feedback loops that keep the system in a state of dynamic balance. No single variable is maximised; all variables fluctuate around their optimal values.

It seems that those that survived in the long run were part of a collective while the so-called strong ones that never learned the trick of cooperation have been dumped into the scrap heap of evolutionary extinction.

Could co-evolution replace Darwinian evolution as the primary explanation of how nature changes?

Lynn Margulis, a Boston University microbiologist, has discovered a cell, which made its appearance about 2.2 billion years ago and has become the basis of all multi-cell plants and animals that exist today. She says that it came about, not as the result of a genetic mutation but by symbiosis. For example, she says the plant kingdom was born when nucleated host cells were invaded by sun-loving oxygen-producing bacteria.

In the same way, although we like to think of ourselves as individuals we are, from head to toe, actually a collection of microbes that have found it beneficial to bind together in cooperation. This is precisely the opposite of intense competition and the survival of the fittest.

Perhaps it's time for a new world view. The competitive model that predicts animals must struggle against each other for available food and space is not born out by observation because such struggles are in fact extremely rare. For example, two species using the diet and habitat find ways to vary their niches rather than compete.

Lovelock has taken the notion of co-evolution to dizzying heights with his Gaia hypothesis. Approximately 4 billion species on earth are co-evolutionarily coordinated in such a way that our planet is itself a single giant cell. He says that if we are to survive the ecological and social crisis we have caused, we may be forced into dramatically new kinds of cooperative ventures. We may perhaps even be pushed towards a unity that has only previously been imagined by religions.

Now I'm not stupid, I know there are times when we have to compete, my aim in this snippet is to challenge your thinking about what is the best primary response. Is it possible that cooperation and collaboration in business are a better strategy for success, just like evolutionary biology?

What do you think????

Warmest wishes


Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZ's most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work
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