Competition versus Collaboration

01.12.2017 |

Episode #10 of the course Where good ideas come from by Jeff Brunski


We’ve covered a great deal of ground on where good ideas come from. In this final lesson, we’ll compare competition and collaboration and hopefully send you off with some encouragement to get out there and share your thinking!


The Fourth Quadrant

The final chapter of Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is called, “The Fourth Quadrant.” In this chapter, Johnson defines four different “types” of inventions/discoveries:

First, the invention/discovery either came from an individual or from a network of people.

Second, the idea was created for profit or in a non-market, open-source, more academic-type environment.

The combination of those variables creates four possible categorizations.

Johnson then categorizes about 200 of the great inventions through human history. A trend emerges: Many recent breakthrough discoveries—Braille, the MRI, GPS—fall into the fourth quadrant, i.e. network development + open source.

In other words, a disproportionate number of good ideas come from people working together in a collaborative way, often without a profit incentive.


Collaboration Can Trump Competition

Johnson’s finding flies in the face of some conventional wisdom. Some wisdom posits that competition and profit are the best mechanisms for generating ideas. Give people incentives (cash for ideas!) and competition (the most ideas win!), and good ideas will flow.

Where competition can fall short is that it encourages people to hide their hunches, feedback, or insights from one another. After all, why help someone else have a better idea if that means they’ll get the reward instead of you? This secretive environment can be poisonous to the creation of new ideas.


What Does This Mean for You?

If you’re not running an organization, does this competition for collaboration theory matter? Yes, and here’s why. Ideas thrive in networks of other ideas, so sharing your idea with someone—anyone—is likely to help you grow the idea.

Yes, ideas are fragile but they are also perishable. The fact that other people might laugh at your idea or hunch should not stop you from sharing it. Sharing and collaborating is too important to let a little fear get in your way.

Find places to share your hunches and discuss your ideas. There has literally never been more opportunity to do so in all of human history. Google “places to share ideas,” and you’ll get a nice long list of sites.



I’ll leave you with a quote from Johnson. “…You can create comparable environments on the scale of everyday life: in the workplaces you inhabit; in the way you consume media; in the way you augment your memory. The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wider than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep you folders messy; embrace serendipity make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”

That was the last lesson of the course. Hope you have enjoyed our time together. All the best and go be creative!


Recommended reading

Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”


Recommended book

Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently by Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur


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