March 7, 2014 5:58 pm

‘A Bigger Prize’, by Margaret Heffernan

A Bigger Prize: Why Competition Isn’t Everything and How We Do Better Margaret Heffernan, Simon & Schuster RRP£14.99/PublicAffairs RRP$27.99, 448 pages

Margaret Heffernan once worked for CMGI, an internet conglomerate that was nicknamed “The Creature” for its tentacular hold over a network of ill-starred dotcom companies. CMGI’s fate was sealed in the bust of 2000 as stock prices tumbled. In her new book, Heffernan makes just one glancing reference to it, as an example of a company where “the score is all that counts”. But a sense of outrage at the dark side of the economic system that made her fortune as an entrepreneur and executive fuels the Texan-born author’s work. Far from driving progress, competition, Heffernan says, often triggers capitalism’s most damaging impulses.

A Bigger Prize is about more than just business, however, incorporating broader insights into the psychology of the powerful and the driven. In this respect it is a companion volume to Heffernan’s last book, Wilful Blindness. That excellent study of people who overlook signs of scandal, misbehaviour and impending disaster made the shortlist for FT Business Book of the Year in 2011. The cover of the new book highlights the accolade – surprisingly, perhaps, given Heffernan’s suspicion of such zero-sum contests.

A Bigger Prize opens with a scene of sibling rivalry in the country home of a pair of high-achieving lawyers. Heffernan recognises in the competition between their three sons signs of the same dangerous drive that turned her own father, who hated his two brothers, into a bully. Beware the illusion that such people are always successful, she writes, because “what the world doesn’t celebrate are the vast numbers of hyper-competitive people whose drive is what subverts them”. An inability to co-operate can itself lead to professional failure.

 

Competition is built into human interaction, Heffernan concedes, starting with the idea of “sex as a contest”, which runs “from Greek gods to Jane Austen to Bridget Jones”. But by overemphasising the importance of winning, most institutions fail to take account of the parallel and often more powerful effect of successful co-operation and collaboration.

Scientists’ “fear of being scooped” and reluctance to share research precludes joint work that would achieve better results more quickly. Corporate tools such as “rank and yank” schemes to cull the worst-performing team members suppress creativity and innovation. Obsession with competitiveness and size for its own sake leads to the creation of organisations that are so large they are both “unmanageable and unmanaged”. Even competitive sport drives young athletes towards physical and mental breakdown.

In the meantime, as Heffernan writes, “little in our culture trains, rewards or even seems to notice great collaboration”. Here I think she overstates our blindness to the virtues of co-operation – just as she exaggerates the toxicity of competition. Business models that she praises, such as employee-owned groups, are enjoying a revival of interest, while some of her examples of companies with less formal management structures – notably WL Gore, maker of Gore-Tex fabrics – are well-covered in business literature. Also, a once-in-a-century financial crisis has shocked some organisations into reverse. Ross McEwan, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland – whose expansion under previous management is inevitably criticised in A Bigger Prize – recently declared that “the days when RBS sought to be the biggest bank in the world . . . are well and truly over.”

But Heffernan is right that, even now, the media praise “solo heroism” and the system – from exam targets to bonuses – still mostly conditions people to reach the top rather than share the credit. Examples of productive sharing are pushed to the sidelines. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to persuade youngsters bent on Olympic success that they should settle for merely taking part, or to encourage a corporate bureaucracy to split itself into smaller, more manageable units. But on top of that, as the chief executive of Boston Scientific, the medical device company built on a culture of sharing, tells Heffernan: “This kind of collaboration isn’t soft at all – it’s very, very hard.”

A Bigger Prize is, in its way, an example of how hard it is. Its examples are so varied, its scope so broad, that it lacks the sharp edge of Wilful Blindness. Heffernan admits in the final chapter that “the perfect blueprint for collaboration” does not exist. In fact, she says it would be dangerous to propose a single route to co-operative success because “safety lies in plurality.” The problem is that, from business to psychology, the bookshelves groan with blueprints that encourage individuals to aim high, destroy the competition and grab the more obvious, easier prizes.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor

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