In our society, we grow up with competition. We love to categorize or measure, and not just at sport events. The best brand, the best-selling, the most beautiful. In doing so, we ignore the effects this attitude has on our society – and these effects are often counterproductive, especially in a corporate context.
I can still remember my time as a controller: in meetings, I usually presented reports alone, in a room full of colleagues from sales, marketing, and the executives. It was not a community, but a clash of silos with different agendas. The result: an intra-company competition. It always ended in discussions, because sales looked at the market and controlling at the costs. Either one won or there was a lousy compromise that further incited the competition between the silos. But is that goal-oriented or even motivating?
My first CrossFit class or: a trip into the world of pain
To answer this question, let me take you to my first CrossFit class. When I switched from the gym to CrossFit, I noticed how the atmosphere or community positively affected my performance and results. “CrossFit is only for the strong and fit,” I often hear, and for a long time I thought the same way. In the gym, people compare constantly and even train in front of a mirror. Just like in a race or a classic tournament, there are the first three places, the winner, and many losers.
But why would I choose CrossFit, a more difficult sport? Because I was no longer interested in pumping in front of a mirror, nor in discussions about cost reports in silo companies. Envy and vanity dominate the classic gym just as much as the classic meeting rooms. In contrast, CrossFit and agile cultivate community and support each other. So, off I went and signed up for CrossFit, even though I could only manage one lousy pull-up at the time. But I was looking for new motivations.
The curtain rises for humiliation?
First class CrossFit: the workout of the day (WOD) consisted of pull-ups. 10 per round, 50 total. Really?! The coach asked the group who couldn’t do them. Trapped in the old behavior pattern, I didn’t think about exposing my weakness. They could think I am a loser. That’s when I noticed that several people came forward and there was talk about how to “scale” the WOD. This means that instead of doing pull-ups, you use an elastic band or jump on the bar (jumping pull-ups). The coach reminded us: if you choose a standard, you have to follow through with it – and he looked right at me while doing it. A thousand thanks for that. I obviously scaled as well.
As a result, I was also immediately approached by the person next to me: “First class?” – “Yes,” and we got to talk, plus tips. Instead of feeling insecure, or even a loser, I suddenly felt momentum and included. No more fear. The urge to show off and want to win had faded. In the middle of the WOD I realized that it was more about survival – for all of us. Short of breath, I struggled through this task far outside my comfort zone and was also pretty much one of the last to finish.
But the thing about CrossFit is that the athletes who finish don’t run away, they root for the others. For me it was a little uncomfortable to be in the spotlight, but whatever. In the end, we were all totally happy and excited. We survived and, in the group, we had all won: we had overcome ourselves and achieved something that seemed impossible. Well, at least for me.
The day after, I had a hard time getting up from the office chair because of sore muscles, but the endorphin was still pumping in my veins, and I went back to CrossFit after two days of soreness – and at some point, I even went every day. Pull-ups are no challenge anymore and I achieved way more. With hindsight, this progress feels almost easy and natural. So why all the silos in companies?
Tear down the silos!
Internal competitions do not boost the business. I realized this the first time I worked with agile with people from different departments in a team – with one and the same goal, not individual agendas. The meetings weren’t about discussions between each other. It was about contributing together towards the organization’s goals. New ideas were shared without fear of them being used to once disadvantage. The potential I uncovered in myself at CrossFit can be created in organizations through cross-functional teams and a shared focus. The key is to create an atmosphere of community.
But watch out! Just like at CrossFit you must make sure that standards are met. It must be a hard task so you can grow from the challenge. Furthermore, common and high standards let everyone know what it takes to belong to the community. Competition has brought us into the 21st century, but it has also contributed to many negative developments in society. The problems we face together today, and which threaten the future of all of us, such as climate change, species extinction, and exclusion, cannot be solved through competition. We can only do it as a community. If you live this principle in your company, you are already agile – even without an agile framework.