Tuesday, March 11, 2014

How to Win-Win

A man chided me the other day when I used the term “win-win” to describe an outcome I’d achieved with his colleague. He said, “That is so 80s.” My sociologist colleague Michael Ryan tells me that when we’re trying to change a paradigm, we revisit again and again the ideas that appear to have some aspect of what’s needed in order to bring about change. For example, it seems organizations are on their 5th or 6th large scale attempt at “teams” (cross-functional, high-performing, collaborative, etc). This trend of teams keeps resurfacing. It’s no coincidence that successful teams require a win-win mindset. 

What is win-win? It’s where you win and I win--according to our perceptions and definitions of what constitutes a win. These perceptions are values-driven. Because win-win is not the current paradigm (that distinction belongs to win-lose), it’s believed by most to be impossible. This is true particularly around certain types of people as well as certain types of issues--such as those involving finite resources. If you and I have a total of $1000 to share, it’s a finite amount, a fixed pie. And the environment, our natural resources, are apparently finite. Win-lose people think that a fixed pie automatically translates into a competitive, win-lose equation. They’re wrong. 

Just because you haven’t been taught a win-win mindset, doesn’t mean it can’t be acquired and operationalized (or systematized). We teach it every day to people currently living according to a win-lose paradigm. The first step in unlocking a win-lose paradigm in yourself and others is to understand that it is, in fact, a paradigm. Win-lose is everywhere! My child’s school offers “Battle of the Books” along with a host of other competitive programs with winners and losers. 

It also helps to see that a win-lose mindset is a predictable by-product of a much larger, even more pervasive paradigm: hierarchy. This ancient structure emerged during the neolithic revolution in order to manage agrarian resources and settle disputes. Hierarchy is based on the masculine, patriarchal values of power and authority and it’s our automatic default approach to nearly everything. 

Hierarchy makes it nearly impossible for people to play win-win. Primarily, because only one person gets promoted into a position of greater power and authority (you have to beat out all the others). And secondly, because it’s a mostly implicit game, so you never actually know the rules; they change moment to moment, leader to leader and organization to organization. Hierarchy supports a win-lose mindset and vice-versa. 

The fully explicit Collaborative Operating System (COS) stands in stark contrast to hierarchy because not only does it support, it actually systematizes win-win. If you stop using tools and techniques to take on the win-lose nature of hierarchy and hierarchical “leaders” and upgrade to a system designed around win-win, your efforts will advance. The transparent nature of the COS works particularly well with win-lose people: behavior and motivations improve dramatically when they become transparent.The more explicit we make things, the more we can choose how we want to be. Welcome to the new win-win.

~ Rachel Conerly