In the series, the earth is engulfed by bite-sized zombies, walkers, who threaten to overwhelm the remaining population. So much for the classic slasher content of the story. What the Walking Dead is really about is that the greatest danger to humanity is not so much the zombies as, armed with a solid spade, you can dispense with them. The real danger is the people who react in different ways to the permanent threat. The baseline of the show is therefore "Fight the dead, fear the living". I did not have to look up the latter, this geek has the T-shirt. After all, during the series we see how some people form a commune in collaborative harmony; they even have flower garlands. Others apparently are less willing to cooperate, have more self-interest and choose to fight these softies. The main character Rick Grimes, a former agent, must therefore constantly balance his group between working together (cooperative) and working in opposition (competition) to survive. And, except for the zombies, we strangely see the same phenomenon occur during this Corona crisis.

© The Walking Dead

There is a large group of people who will work together in solidarity to make face masks, make calls to others or show bears for the entertainment of walking children. Another group works against them, holding lock-down parties, hoarding toilet paper and happily driving to the coast. Politically we see the same phenomenon; either opt for strong opposition by giving up support to WHO or opt for cooperation as a group of countries and cancel the debts of those most severely affected. Organizations choose the same approach. Either they compete with the environment, as Albert Heijn is doing, and opt for self-interest by no longer paying suppliers. Or, on the other side, you have organizations, such as Delhaize and Colruyt, working together to provide healthcare providers with necessary resources. Now you probably suspect that we, as socially engaged sweethearts, will make a case for cooperation and not for competition. You are wrong. Our work with street children has led us to realize that, in deprived neighborhoods, it is precisely the balance between the two, cooperative competition, which ensures that we can grow and survive.

An example can explain cooperative competition. You have to earn your stripes in a gang, by entering the competition at the right time but in a way that does not put you outside the group. The same goes for a start-up coffee farmer. You would do well to want to be the best, first and foremost, with good soil and good beans but not at the expense of all your neighbors. But just as the gang members have to put aside their personal ambitions to face an external threat, so should the coffee farmer work with like-minded people against the influence of buyers. So it is about choosing cooperation or competition at the right time and using the skill to make optimal use of both parts. This optimal balance is what cooperative competition, also known in literature as cooptation (based on the research of Nobel Prize winner Nash), is all about. The question is, how do we do that?         

Well, in our StreetwiZe training on cooperative competition, we cover four insights and skills that can help. The first tip is to think more creatively about who we can work with. Very often partnerships arise on a horizontal level, with colleagues as it were. An example in the distribution sector is the integration of Mediamarkt stores within the Makro branches. The latter party then stops selling electronics while hoping to benefit from additional customers that the presence of the first party can yield. The danger, however, lies in that through this cooperation you have an attractive offer that the customer isn’t waiting for. The hoped-for results of the collaboration between Mediamarkt and Makro will not materialize at the branches. That is why vertical cooperation is also required. This form of collaboration also involves customers or users in shaping a product or service. It includes various crowdfunding initiatives in which users design a product or service in co-creation with the supplier. This form of cooperation is very much in the DNA of the mobile school, where cooperation takes place between our organization, a local partner and the children, so that we can optimally design the school.

A second tip is to look for complementaries (complementarity) and not similarities (simularity) in collaboration. As long as the automotive sector only works with car manufacturers, the outcome will be limited to the same mindset of ideas. If the automotive sector wants to increase results from collaborative working, they would do well to appeal to complementary partners. These can range from alternative mobility providers (public transport, bicycles, Kiss & Ride car parks) to completely different approaches (urban planning, environmental movement). This is also essential thinking in the social sector. Too many Boards of Directors still consist of like-minded people. However, if we want to learn something from this crisis a collaboration with completely different parties, including for-profit companies, on such a board is one way. That is why we, as an organization, have also resolutely opted to work with complementary members within our Board of Directors.

When it comes to introducing effective competition, we have a third tip; limit collaboration in purpose and in time. Think back to the tip about involving customers in a collaboration to achieve a better product or service. Make it clear in advance what the remit of the cooperation is (for example the design of the product), but also have the courage to indicate the boundaries of that cooperation (for example, the pricing of the product). After the time limit has passed and the collaborative goal achieved, you can compete in a productive way without anyone feeling badly treated.      

And finally the fourth and final tip to monitor the balance between cooperative and competition in an effective way; continue to evaluate critically. What we often see in partnerships is that, once started, they continue to exist. It is unbelievable how many workgroups take place every week, because they have simply become a habit! Keep a critical finger on the pulse of any collaboration by evaluating it internally for additional yield and value. When it is no longer possible to determine added value, which can also lie in the fact that you learn something from it as an organization, we would do well to end it. So make a habit of the critical evaluation, not of the cooperation itself!

Especially in these times of crisis, the optimal balance between cooperation and competition is essential. Pursuing one or the other blindly will not take us any further.

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