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  • Writer's pictureAlexander M. Wegner

Don't Let Competitors Set Your Benchmark

(C) Alexander M. Wegner

IN BUSINESS, FORESIGHT TENDS TO BE OF A QUARTERLY NATURE. Though corporate culture and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have become prominent themes in managerial discourse, management continues to be the art of shareholder satisfaction. Of course, shareholders take an interest in profit, and rightly so. Yet not all things profitable are also valuable, so that competing for profit is not always worthwhile. The eyes of managers are, nonetheless, fixed on their rivals, and surpassing them becomes the driving force of business; profit trumps value.

This obsession with competing has long taken root across society; if affects all sectors of the economy, it prevails in politics, and it also occupies the minds of our children. Parenting and schooling have long contributed to the prominence of competition, as an inevitable consequence of grades, awards and the proliferation of university rankings. The ramifications of this development are, as billionaire entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel notes in “Thinking Too Highly of Higher Ed” and “Competition Is for Losers,” not only adverse for business, but for all of society. Our obsession with being competitive conceals the long-term future, leading us to prefer the imminent over the enduring, often at the expense of the latter.

While employment is typically little more than a means of subsistence, business can and must serve as an engine of progress, in the sense of improvement. The efforts of generations are worthless, unless they enrich the human artifice, which requires awareness of the true value of what is created, independent of presentday dogma. Needless to say, the perils of worthless competition are not news; over 50 years ago, in The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguished between labor whose fruits are devoured as swiftly as they are produced, and work whose outcomes tend to outlive their producers. Plato’s Republic, for instance, will likely still be with us at a time when the iPhone has long gone out of fashion.

Despite these observations, work (that whose outcomes outlive their producers) is virtually extinct, having been confined to scientific labs and academic Ivory Towers. Labor (that whose outcomes do not outlive their producers) has long taken its place, fueled and sustained by competition. The 2007- financial crisis was symptomatic of this problem, and will not be the last symptom to trouble us. Rather than thinking about how to outpace, outshine or silence our rivals, we must think about what it is we are doing, why we are doing it, what it creates and how it benefits society. In doing so, we will not only autonomously foster our own organizational excellence, but unintentionally build a monopoly by thinking and acting anew.

Leaving competition behind means making an absolute evaluation of the kind and quality of products and services offered. Organizations need not to ask what the relative value of their creations is, by comparing their products and services against those of their competitors, but must ask how inherently valuable their offerings are. Along the way, they must also think about how to empower employees to maximize value, and facilitate continuous creation. Ideals, not competitors, must set the benchmark guiding managers, leading to the kind of business Gary Hamel envisions in “Innovation Starts with the Heart, Not the Head.”

In pursuit of a long-term future, Bay Area companies have already achieved the successes to which organizations worldwide aspire. PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla and even Uber are not primarily products of competition, but stem from prioritizing creative uncertainty over the reassuring certainties of the here-and-now. By assessing and interrogating themselves more rigorously than their competitors, organizations can infuse meaning and purpose into work, providing the conditions that enable managers and employees alike to build and lead organizations into a world that has been, and remains ours to shape.

Winning is better than losing, but everybody loses when the war isn’t one worth fighting. –Peter Thiel in Zero to One
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