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A Bigger Prize

By: Margaret Hefferman


I particularly enjoyed A Bigger Prize because it challenged my economist training (or lazy thinking) that competition produces the best outcomes. As Margaret Hefferman points out, the centrality of competition is drilled into us at an early age, undermining motivation and limiting creativity. "Grades, start, certificates, money, trophies: virtually every type of expected tangible reward made contingent on task performance does, in fact, undermine intrinsic motivation" (p42). The point is that winning is not the only thing that matters; the journey is important. We need "...to stop and remind ourselves that in sport, like so many other areas of life, experiences can be as important as outcomes...in other words: the score is not the point...winning needs to take a back seat..." (p155).

Margaret Hefferman argues that our focus on competition undermines our ability to work together and succeed as a society. She writes, "never mind the cost…competition is designed to benefit the few, not the many – we live in a dog-eat-dog world and what matters now is to be top dog..." (p4). Challenging and changing our focus on competition is critical to creating a world where everyone can be responsible for our collective well-being. The current emphasis on winning at all costs, competing on price, increasing your importance, and growing companies is detrimental to long-term human well-being and survival.

We can find the negative impacts of this focus on competition. From our politics, where "there can be no more insidious way to make a profit than to whip up hatred and prejudice" (p316). In the public sector, where the focus on making hospitals and schools compete on prices (or act like a business), has been detrimental to their long-term ability to respond to crises and changing societal needs. Or in how we think about leadership, where "…we worship outstanding performers…conveying the message that everyone can – even should – be passive in the face of towering ability...the focus on business leaders as winner conveys the dispiriting message that others don't count" (p.163).

The fact is that "competitive positions inevitably produce constrained thinking, just the opposite of divergent mindsets required for creativity..." (p.364). We are stalled because we're constantly trying to compete, and we fail to find ways to create creative solutions. It's not that conflict is bad; it's the fact that we've equated conflict to competition. That's not the case; conflict is about stretching and testing ideas to get the best one. "Scrapping, as the Wright brothers called it, is how we stretch, test and develop new ideas and possibilities. The conflict-averse can't do this well, and those who love a fight can't either. But the mediators, listeners and scrappers enjoy unfettered exploration...experiments are how new ideas emerge." (p.373). In short, we need to create a society and culture in organisations willing to take risks and try new things. We need to lean into productive conflict to develop new ways of doing things.

Achieving this requires us to challenge our existing frame of reference. We need everyone to be an owner and create environments where everyone can and will take responsibility. This requires us to "listen to people and make them feel responsible for their work" (p.169). However, "...the rhetoric around leadership often suggests that superheroes can do anything, win any race, clear any hurdle..." (p.161). "This belief in heroic leadership emerges every time a company hits a crisis. Instead of examining systemic issues, the cry goes out for a messiah who will, singlehandedly compel transformation" (p.162). Except that it doesn't work that way, people need to be listened to and supported, and it is when you have an effective group of people collaborating new ideas emerge.

Using hospitals to make this point, Margaret Hefferman points out that collaboration isn't a soft skill. "In great collaborative leadership, the job is to tweak the environment so that the sum is greater than the individuals who are contributing…people laugh and joke and think collaboration is some kind of feel-good enterprise and, I'm sorry, in those situations, the achievement is never greater than the sum of the parts" (p.220). Collaboration takes hard work to bring people together. To make hospitals safer, we must find ways to acknowledge mistakes and look for improvements. By encouraging the sharing of mistakes, failures, and collaboration, it has been possible to reduce how often mistakes happen. Creating this environment allows individuals to acknowledge their errors and gets people to speak up when they see a problem.

Quoting Arthur Miller, Margaret Hefferman makes the point that "an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted", and for us, that illusion is that competition makes us stronger, and it doesn't. We need to refocus on creating space for collaboration, building trust and creating space to explore the big challenges facing us. As Alber Einstein famously said, "we can't solve problems by using the same thinking we used when we created them". To solve the challenges we face today, we can't rely on our existing models of how the world works; we need to develop new ones, which means ditching the idea that more competition will create better outcomes for society.

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