The right competition in government fosters cooperation
- By Walter R. Houser
- Jul 29, 1996
Government agencies should be more like the private sector. They would be better if
they learned to compete in a competitive world. If government programs competed in the
marketplace, they'd be more efficient and effective.
Such is the advice government agencies get from well-meaning critics of bureaucracies.
Frankly, most federal agencies already are quite competitive. For example, few companies
compete as intensely Interior's Park Service and Agriculture's Forest Service.
It has become a matter of Hollywood folklore that U.S. intelligence agencies are almost
as competitive with each other as they are with the foreign powers that oppose us.
Interservice rivalries in the Defense Department go far beyond Army-Navy football games.
If there is anything we feds need to learn from private industry, it is how to
cooperate. Competition is a luxury of plush budgets and ample staffing. But during these
lean times, we need to stretch every dollar, including those in other agencies, to get our
Dog-eat-dog competition leads to unproductive turf battles and redundant efforts that
the nation can ill afford. For every winner, there are several losers plotting to get
even. Taxpayers shouldn't have to dig deep into their pockets to pay for the schemes
hatched by discouraged managers and employees seeking revenge.
So how can we achieve peak performance without destructive competition?
Harry Olson's book The New Way to Compete gives the following advice:
Instead of praise for the "winners," give recognition for all. Downplay
rewards and punishment, and promote widespread appreciation for effort. Evaluations should
be self-assessments measured against one's personal best, not against external standards
or the performance of others. Employees' self-worth needs to be intrinsic, based on a
sense of confidence and contribution, rather than dependent on the opinions or
accomplishments of others.
Olson sees eight keys to moving from competition to cooperation:
1. First and most important: Redefine "winning" from beating an opponent to
making the greatest contribution. Essential to this shift are the establishment of a
common mission and personal integrity. Organizations need to agree on their purpose and
create an honor code describing how they will meet that purpose.
2. We need to free ourselves of comparisons to others and take responsibility for our
own sense of self-worth. When we've done this, we can free ourselves from fear of success
or failure. Then we can, as the psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs put it, "make friends
with mistakes" and derive the most value from our experience. Fear of failure is the
mortal enemy of creativity.
3. Recognize that only we can judge of whether we have done our best with what we have.
We diminish our personal power when we let someone else judge our performance. In the heat
of the race, we waste our energy when we look at others instead of paying attention to
what we are doing.
4. See change as an opportunity rather than a threat. Here we break the mold instead of
fighting over crumbs. We dare to create new markets instead of squabbling over existing
5. Go from struggle to flow. In struggle we waste energy on monitoring the progress of
others; flow happens when we put our energies into dealing with the needs of the
6. Keep one's focus. When the heat is on, the task is paramount. Is the job getting
done? One asks "What am I doing?" rather than "How am I doing?"
7. Get satisfaction for the effort. "Winning" is simply icing on the cake.
The positive competitor derives pleasure from preparation and participation.
"Losing" to a worthy adversary is more satisfying than "winning" with
less than one's best effort.
8. Win through others rather than over others. When I focus on my contribution, I see
others as a resource rather than a threat. I want others to be most effective in
contributing as their best effort helps me be more effective in making mine. I look at
others to learn from them how to improve; I can learn the most when they win.
It is these kind of attitudes that allow General Motors to team with Mitsubishi. Or IBM
and Apple to build the Power PC together. The focus on contribution is one of the
foundations of the HP Way that's a cornerstone of Hewlett-Packard Co. To become effective
competitors, these companies have learned to cooperate.
This is the lesson government agencies need to learn from the private sector.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.//cpcug.org/user/houser/.