Competitors or collaborators?

Posted by jlubans on August 25, 2011

Thirty-two years ago pictures of the Yarborough-Allison fight from the 1979 Daytona went national – the pictures, some say, made NASCAR what it is today.
However much we might like to observe competition – even the road rage exhibited by Messrs. Allison and Yarborough - competition is not always the best way for groups to solve problems. We win or we lose. Losers wait to get even, winners are only as good as their last win. And, we have temper tantrums.

Collaboration – the type espoused in my book - is usually a better way to problem solve – you win, I win. Often, when we genuinely collaborate, we come up with a better answer than either of us might have had to start with. Note that I said genuinely. Collaboration for many is the same as cooperation or consensus. It is not. When we cooperate, we give a little and get a little. We do not try to reach a best solution, we settle for less – we may even accommodate others to get past the problem. Consensus building is even more delusional – everyone agrees to a solution, whether it is best or not. Without rigorous debate among all participants – a feature of genuine collaboration – some agreed upon solutions might not be the best.

I had high hopes that a 2009 film recommended to me by one of my Latvian students might illustrate a group collaborating its way out of a problem. The student saw in this movie the elements I had been stressing in class – collaboration and group dynamics – the forming, storming, norming and performing elements of successful teamwork. That movie, Exam is well done, no question. It’s got suspense, crisp dialogue, a plot and some moments - early in the film - of people reaching out to help each other, but that’s only the beginning. We soon realize this film is about 8 people who are in competition with each other - each of them wants to be the survivor – the one that answers the one question set by the Invigilator – (British for exam proctor) to the group locked in a windowless classroom with a deadline ticking down. Unless I am mistaken, there is no answer to the question, What’s the question? Cerebral, yes.

Exam is Darwinist, no holds barred, raw emotion, much of it less than admirable, with some bits of despicable human behavior. However, it does offer a surprise heroine, the observer, coolly detached, who – well I won’t spoil it. In a way, Exam, would help illuminate what collaboration is – the opposite of much of what you see in this film!

Exam echoes Donald Trump’s, The Apprentice. Both offer moments of happy collaboration among aspiring executives, but in the end there’s only one winner. Only the one “best” leader, according to the Donald and the Invigilator, survives. It’s King Bidgood with the Executioner in the wings stropping his axe!

Each of Exam’s 8 - apparently the survivors among hundreds of applicants for a huge job at a mysterious enterprise - can and will be fired. An armed guard oversees the group, as does the Invigilator, off screen. If you mess up, you are escorted out, always ignominiously and sometimes forcefully tossed out the door. Soon the group is down to 4 and it only gets nastier.

It seems, in this exam room, your trusting someone, your behaving decently, may get you expelled. So, the message seems to be “Trust No One” or “Trust Everyone” but verify.

How would I end Exam? Probably with a group effort. Like crossing the finish line holding hands. But is that the way to get the best? If you want only one survivor, only the “best”, probably not, but if you are willing to settle for a different solution, then why not?

Experiential learning – pretty much my pedagogy – offers group activities from which participants can derive principles of collaboration. I have led and been part of groups with given problems to solve, from erecting tents in the dark to emptying out a gallon of nitroglycerine (pretend) to save a city from ruin, all within a deadline with the clock ticking. These are “games” but they have the potential to illustrate just how much or how little people will do to achieve a positive outcome. Some people do more than expected, others do less, and others do what they can to stymie the outcome if it is not going to make them look good.

So, maybe there is something to be said for using Exam since it tears off the mask, tells it all, shows the worst and the best, and finally, the champion who in the movie will get to make God-like decisions.

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