AUTHOR Q&A: Margaret Heffernan: A Bigger Prize

Being top seems to be everything - but at what cost, asks Margaret Heffernan.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 22 Mar 2016

A Bigger Prize: Why competition isn't everything and how we do better 
Simon & Schuster, £14.99

What inspired you to write this book?

One discovery of my last book, Wilful Blindness, was that many banks had turned a blind eye to the risks of subprime mortgages because they were in a competitive marketplace for salespeople who demanded these high-commission products. I was struck that this is not the way competition is supposed to work. In theory, competition is supposed to create more choices; in this case, it just meant everyone doing the same thing. So that led me to ask: what are the other situations in which competition doesn’t work the way it is supposed to? And it turned out that there were many.

What’s so bad about competition? Doesn’t it make society more productive? 

In education, sport, science and business, intense competition provokes cheating, corruption, a tendency to game the system. All of this militates against the productive and innovative capacities of companies. Many of the most productive, successful companies that I write about - Arup, Morning Star, WL Gore, Interface, TechShop, Basecamp - are not driven by competition but by two key things: a passionate shared dedication to knowledge and a professional commitment to the deliberate development of super-collaborators. This is what makes them standout companies that last.

Do you think schools should do away with exam targets and sports days?

Employers recognise that grades are very poor determinants of professional achievement. Their dominance in our education system has many negative side-effects, chief among which is the message they convey (and which kids readily absorb) that it is the grades, not the learning, that counts. If it is all about grades and targets, does it matter how those are achieved? If they can be got through cheating, why not? Increasing competitive pressure hasn’t made kids smarter but it has hugely stoked the incidence of cheating and plagiarism, with the consequence that now every piece of university work must now be put through Turnitin software to check that it hasn’t been stolen or copied! This is an extraordinary situation. It’s estimated that cheating in schools has increased by 50% in the past four years, together with more students using drugs like Adderall to improve their performance.

Moreover, putting more and more pressure on grades doesn’t just provoke cheating. It encourages a mindset that believes there is one right answer to each question. This is almost never true in business. So it’s very bad preparation and goes some way to explaining why employers are so dissatisfied by their young employees’ inability to think constructively and imaginatively for themselves: they’ve been trained not to.

As for sports days, these are fine as long as they’re for fun and don’t matter. We’ve significantly lost the ability to engage in sport for fun. There’s fantastic research on this subject which shows that the things we most value about sport - learning discipline, collaboration, fair play, integrity, resilience - isn’t what kids (or indeed their parents) really see as important. Kids see that sport is all about winning and if they can’t win, they quit. That’s why most kids no longer participate in sports after the age of 12. That’s tragic. As Travis Tygart, the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, has argued eloquently, we need to retrieve the idea of sport as fun before it’s lost forever.

What are the skills needed for creative collaboration?

Numerous and subtle! We know that there are certain behaviours that contribute more to the effectiveness of groups than IQ; these include active listening, equality of contribution (so no-one stays silent but also no-one dominates discussion), high levels of trust, active and frequent eye contact,the ability to give and to receive frequent and unvarnished feedback that carries no mandate, additive thinking and humility. Collaboration is hard. Everyone thinks it’s an easy option but, done well, it’s tough, requiring courage and confidence and a climate of safety. 

Give us an example of a company that, in your view, has got it right.

Gripple is a good example. The job description of everyone there is: if the ball is falling, catch it. That applies to everyone. Gripple is a global manufacturing firm and 25% of its sales come from products that did not exist 4 years ago. That’s how innovative it is. The company has a very flat hierarchy and everyone feels responsible for the company as a whole.

Arup, the world’s leading structural engineering firm, owes much of its success to a culture in which knowledge sharing is pervasive. This gives the company the capacity to get answers to virtually any technical problem within 24 hours and more typically within an hour. This is a vast asset as it means projects do not get stalled.

… And an example of a company that has got it horribly wrong.

The poster child for that is, of course, RBS where an internal culture of competition was deliberately fostered. And of course the disastrous acquisitions of RBS were driven by Fred Goodwin’s determination to compete to be the biggest bank, doing the biggest deals. The banking sector as a whole has deployed competition in the false belief that it would bring out the best in people, where in fact it just meant that individuals would break any rule to hit targets and beat others’ bonuses.

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