Sitting out a snowstorm recently (in Michigan, winter is not done with us yet), my wife and I watched a couple of great documentaries. First was Murderball, a chronicle of the quadriplegic rugby international games. Then it was Mad Hot Ballroom, a doc on the ballroom dancing competition for 11-year-old New York public school kids. Both brilliant films. And because I find it difficult to completely disengage from my love of organizational dynamics, I observed a great lesson for our enterprises in these gems. In both situations, the talent involved had personal, and even physical, challenges to overcome. But what drove the players in each documentary was good-old, plain, in-your-face competition. They wanted to win. Not make this a better world, not meet some greater societal obligation, not satisfy shareholders ... they just wanted to beat their competition. In the case of Murderball, that can be taken literally.
In my work, I have sensed that "winning" hasn't commonly been the driving force for performance. I've seen a lot of attention paid to conformance to specifications, quality indices, productivity measures, etc., but without answering the question "compared to whom?" In both films, the players and dancers had to win several qualifying events before they got a chance to go for the championship. Shouldn't the metrics in our organizations mirror this? Might employees be a bit more engaged if they knew how they were doing against the competition? Shouldn't business literacy include understanding the competition and knowing their game? And the big, somewhat ethical, question: Is it okay to want to put your competition out of business by beating them in the game? I remember the first mission statement from Saturn ... it was simple and clean ... "produce a car that was higher in quality and lower in cost than the Honda Civic." Know the competition and engage the team in beating them?