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A Bigger Prize

By Margaret Heffernan

(Doubleday Canada, 391 pages, $32.95)

One of the prevailing beliefs of capitalist business is that competition is a vital, energizing force. Indeed, that belief seems integral to the modern, Western world. Survival of the fittest, Darwin's description of nature, is applied widely.

That occurs despite the warning signals in recent years – the ethical corrosion, financial crashes, and the overheated rhetoric of our aimless partisan politics. "Competition has become the default motivator, as though, exhausted and demoralized, no culture or politics could offer a superior driver or decisive alternative," Margaret Heffernan writes in her insightful dissection of competition and call for collaboration, A Bigger Prize.

Ms. Heffernan has had a varied career, including stints at the BBC, running a trade association, and serving as chief executive officer of multimedia companies. She knows capitalism and competition from the inside – she isn't throwing pot-shots from some radical, anarchist cult. But she is convinced that our culture is caught up in a testosterone-fuelled feedback loop: "We've been persuaded that if we aren't top dog we must be underdogs, if we aren't winners we're losers. What's striking in its absence is any equivalent urging to hone our collaborative gifts. We know they're in there – we just don't make much effort to refine them. Opting to compete rather than to collaborate is a choice, however, not an evolutionary inevitability, and a choice that incurs high costs, not just for our family relationships but for friendships, organizations, institutions, and the world that we create."

That's quite a canvas of collateral damage, but she tackles it all in this wide-ranging book. She starts with education, where many North American parents prod their children to be competitive and mourn that schools aren't as tough as in the past. She points to research by psychologists Teresa Amabile and Beth Hennessy that concluded there are five ways education can kill creativity: Having children work for an expected reward, telling pupils to focus on an expected evaluation, deploying lots of surveillance, setting up restricted choices and creating competitive situations. "These practices all typify the education systems and policies we currently deploy. We say we want motivated, creative students – but we opt for methods and structures known to undermine both," she writes.

We all know the rebuttal to her, however. It's a competitive world, and if our youngsters can't match the students of other countries, notably Asia, our society will lose out. But what about the competition? She takes readers to a school in Singapore that is trying to nurture creativity and collaboration – an experiment the country's minister of education says is being eagerly watched since the country needs more of what that school seeks to instill in students and we are eager to jettison.

She travelled to Finland, which finished first in reading, third in science, and fourth in math in the definitive Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. Finnish students don't take regular standardized tests until they are 18 and, while they get written assessments, don't receive grades.

"We can make competition out of anything – for fun. But we just don't think it's the way to inspire a love of learning. We focused on equity and co-operation instead of choice and competition," says Pasi Sahlberg, the last chief inspector of schools – back in the early 1990s – and now a consultant. Remember, these kids aren't losers, as our rhetoric would claim. They are doing better than Canadian students.

She says that in business, competition has given us clone wars. Supposedly, competition stirs us to be creative. But as all those look-alike TV shows, movies and fast-food franchises show, competition tends to lead entrepreneurs to copy others. It's much safer that way. We even see me-too prescription drugs. But she says the bigger problem in pharmaceuticals is that competitive fervour keeps research data secret, reducing the ability of societies to build upon the knowledge scientists have gained.

She looks at the financial crisis, where competition among banks led to the subprime mortgage debacle, encouraging homeowners to load up on debt they could not afford. One chief credit officer at a bank told her: "There was no way on earth that we could hire, let alone retain, a single good salesperson if we weren't prepared to let them sell subprime. They stood to make huge commissions off of these deals." She adds: "Classic economic theory turned out to be wrong: A competitive market had not diversified risk but concentrated it. Competition hadn't produced variety but rather had encouraged everyone to do the same thing. When the market crashed, there were no safe havens left."

Competition, of course, has led businesses to ignore the external costs of their operations that society has to pay, notably but not exclusively damage to the environment. Competition has led us to supersize everything, which is not always the healthy thing to do – even in organizational structure, where more manageable sizes are preferred. It has also encouraged a race to the bottom, seeking lower-cost goods, pushing down our own wages and creating social problems elsewhere.

She goes on and on, not just listing the damages she ascribes to competition but also indicating why the alternative, collaboration, is preferred. It's sobering reading, well researched and illuminating in its examples and scope.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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