Competition

Why We Compete

If we use finish places on a podium as a metric for competition then many of us have not business pinning on a number and placing a toe on the start line.  It is a rare event where I have a legitimate chance of securing a top three finish.  And even when I have finish at the pointy end of the race I can immediately identify a names of competitors who were absent and would have placed in front of me on their off day.  So why do we compete?

I believe competition is for shared experiences.  Racing provides a type of mythology that become narrative and eventually story.  A former coach reminded me that training sessions are safe.  You can use them to push yourself to the point of failure and then absorb the consequences.  Races are celebrations and personal commitments.  We agree to show-up and give our best.  The irony is that I have a hard time recalling victories.  What does hold itself front and center are experiences.  The snowstorms that completely obscured the trail that we did not know where to proceed.  The wind that blew so fiercely that my bike and I were pushed helplessly across the road and into the path of an oncoming police van on a mountain in France.  Dirt trails that stretched ceaselessly uphill onto the knife ridge of a Hawaiian mountain before plummeting down a muddy trail that requires a rope to descend.  The hug from a competitor who won their division best because we took turns leading each other through the final hour of racing.  Holding on desperately to a pack of skiers, pleading internally that they found no motivation to go faster as we screamed towards a finish line.   Riding with 14,000 cyclist in a Gran fondo that was so full of incidents and unique equipment that a cycling cartoonist would have a career worth of material.  And the smiles for having participated, no matter the outcome or place.

We compete for the adventure, uncertainty, connection, stories, and the chance to smile.  Hopes of winning may be extinguished quickly but we do not drop-out.  We continue forward, motivated by those who are putting forward their best.  Inspired to absorb the moment and tell stories afterwards.

What is the Score

How do you measure your cause’s success?  As an endurance athlete I occasionally enter a race and gain immediate feedback on my level of fitness.  What is the equivalent for the social sector?  Is it dollars raises at a gala?  Number of members? Total program attendees?  Size of your annual budget?  Ratio of funds raised to operational costs?  Your annual report versus another organization?  The number of mentions in the paper or on the internet?  How many people are clambering to join your board?  How many members of the community will recommend your cause?

I am not sure what the appropriate fitness test is but I imagine we all have an idea.

Pack Mentality

Have you wondered why endurance athletes compete in a pack?  What law of attraction pulls so many people together in such a close proximity?  There are some demonstrated benefits, such as drafting a competitor in a cycling race can provide 30% less work than leading.  But why is it rare for us to see a marathon or stage of the Tour de France where a lone competitor strikes out by themselves at the start and attempts to solo to victory.  Breakaways take place but often the attempts become more bold when the finish line is closer and the certainty of reaching it becomes higher.

How often is our strategy determined by what our peers and competitors have done?  Many organizations perform an environmental scan prior to launching a strategic planning effort.  This exercise can be illuminating and constraining at the same time.  I frequently find organizations gravitate towards changes that competitors have made.  Another enterprise hired a Director of Advancement to help them with their fundraising effort.  The conversation quickly becomes, ‘should we hire a professional for our development campaign?’ Organization X will produce a unique marketing piece and suddenly replicas appear from other organizations.  Mirroring another cause is human nature but expecting to standout by staying in the pack is difficult and sometimes irrational.  

Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient, and Rewarding for All
Is your goal to finish the race with the other organizations?  Robert Egger in his book, Begging for Change would argue that this strategy can be optimal for your organization if you rely on the success of partner enterprises.  It is a worthy philosophy to consider.


Are you in the race and running with the pack because it is the optimal way for your organization to advance its mission?  Are you trying to standout as an organization?  So when do you take over the lead?  Do you even need to be in the race?

Train to Race or Race to Train?

Elite athletes train to race but most athletes race to train. The difference is that a professional athletes design a program and schedule a plan to build fitness and speed for specific competitions. This approach is process focused. Many amateurs go for the event approach. They race which then gives them motivation to train. A race result from one week inspires or motivates training for another week before they race again. The race remains the focus and they construct as much scaffolding (training) that can be assembled around the event. This strategy is more of an organic approach to a fitness plan. Panning is based on the race. An elite athlete typically takes a more holistic view, managing both the process and content. A few races are identified as the primary objective and then additional races and training are planned to build the best fitness level to maximize performance at the highlighted competitions.

To quote Seth Godin’s blog entry from December 10th, “Events are easier to manage, pay for and get excited about. Processes build results for the long haul.”

Is your organization event focused, in the race to train mode? Does your organization take a train to race approach and link the events to strategic priorities? Do you monitor the process? Which approach will help you win the Gold?