Monday, September 3, 2012

Coopetition: The Cancer Within?

He is among the most successful producer-directors in Hollywood, best known for his comedy films Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty, to name a few. Yet, unlike so many of his colleagues whose fame and fortune has built them a mansion in Malibu, Brentwood or the Hollywood Hills, Tom Shadyac has chosen to make his domicile a mobile trailer park.

His decision to forsake a lifestyle that he once shared with a very few privileged elite occurred after a bike accident left him with post-concussion syndrome. The excruciating experience, one that took him to death’s doorstep and a face-to-face encounter with his own mortality, prompted him to make some radical life-altering choices.

Five months after the accident, Shadyac was back at work, however this time he was not directing a comedy film but rather a documentary titled, “I Am.” In it he addresses two burning questions: What’s wrong with our world and what can we do about it?

I recently watched this award-winning production and among the many messages it conveys I found one in particular to be most thought provoking. Shadyac continually points to society and our culture as being one that is profoundly tied to competition. From an early age we are taught to compete, whether it is in school, on the athletic field or later in life at our job and in our career. He suggests that the focus on competition is all wrong and posits an alternative course for happiness and success, one that forms the basis for all nature. He asks us to consider, cooperation.

Isn’t that very interesting, I thought. Here we are—credit unions and food, housing and power-generating co-ops all espousing cooperation as the foundation of our business model, and here is Tom Shadyac, a multi-millionaire who simplified his lifestyle and gave hundreds of thousands to charities now proclaiming through his documentary that the key to life is found in cooperation. Can it be that we as co-ops are sitting on a fundamental truth that is much more profound than the business model on which it is built?

I once heard a venerable cooperator explain what makes us different from others outside of the cooperative sector. He simply said, “It’s the way we do things.” Indeed, cooperation is what makes us tick. It’s in our blood and in our DNA. It explains the way we do things.

Yet, I’ve heard it jokingly said more than once, that coopetition (competition among co-ops) is the way we do things, a style of business that’s healthy for our sectors and our members. Is it, really? Last I looked, all that coopetition spawned was a tidal wave of competition among corporate credit unions, pitting one against the other, each vying to offer the most yield for a member’s investments. Like a cancer from within, I don’t have to tell you what that coopetition produced.

Maybe Shadyac is right. Perhaps life’s focus should be on cooperation, not competition and certainly not coopetition. And if so, what does that say about us and our cooperative enterprises? If he’s right, then there’s a lot more to our cooperatives than meets the eye.

You can find more information about Tom Shadyac and his documentary, “I Am.”

Coopetition: The Cancer Within was originally published in February 2012 on CUinsight.

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