THE BLOG
05/14/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Coopetition to Win

Back in January, halfway through Oprah's Super Soul Sunday with Mastin Kipp, Gabrielle Bernstein, and Marie Forleo, I heard something that surprised me. In the midst of the banter about what it means to be a spiritual leader, was the seed of an insight into business culture.

Oprah asked pointedly, "Do you ever feel in competition?" Without missing a beat, Mastin answered:

"No. Our generation... We believe in coopetition. We believe that metal sharpens metal. We're constantly talking to each other. We're constantly helping each other. We believe that it's through our unity we're strong, not through division. Competition is an old model."

There was Oprah, representing the highest level of success achievable in an old paradigm -- one based on competition, zero-sum gamesmanship. Her question revealing her view of the world as a place where it's impossible to have three gurus comfortably occupying the same space. And there sat Mastin, Marie, and Gabby, doing just that. The quick dismissal of her question, without hedging, without a need to please, represented more than Mastin's personal view. He was speaking for a generation. It seemed to me in that moment, a sea change was illuminated.

Generations are a wonderful vehicle for the combination of hope, audacity, and energy necessary to usher in significant social and institutional change. Much has been said about millennials in the workplace -- their need for recognition, their sense of entitlement -- but most of the time the context is condescending. It's a hand-wringing cry of what to do with them? Not a receptive invitation to explore the possibilities they present.

Today competition is so ingrained in the culture of business that it's nearly invisible. It's the source of the adrenaline and anxiety that have made it possible for large, impersonal corporations to motivate employees for years. A major influence in the way we speak, and what we do at work from everyday rituals to the creation of "breakthrough" ad campaigns. But, it just doesn't fly with the younger generation. They don't see the world in black and white terms (in so many ways: race, gender, sexuality, to name a few). There will be no cola wars for this cohort, so to continue building companies and marketing them with that mindset is to lose relevance quickly.

Pulling free of competition with all its highs and lows, risks and rewards, in favor of the more fluid model of coopetition is like pulling free from gravity. It takes a tremendous force of will. It takes seeing the world anew and not being afraid... developing a new love for the unknown. It takes a desire to abandon a poverty mindset in favor of a worldview based on abundance. Perhaps a generation who already live this way can help ease the transition.

Both competition and coopetition recognize that our fates are connected, but one is about me reaching higher ground by stepping on you, while the other is about climbing the mountain together, tethered to the same lifeline. Coopetition doesn't deny the existence of competition. It simply adds an element of "common good" to the equation. Maybe the most efficient, profitable path to success can be crafted together it suggests, utilizing our combined might, solving our shared problems. The creator of stakeholder theory, Ed Freeman of Darden, says, "When you look for trade-offs, you find trade-offs." Coopetition is about looking for the win: win: win.

Millennials have been lampooned by popular culture as the generation in which "everyone got a trophy." This meme has been used to explain why they're all so "entitled," but maybe it also planted the seed for an important new idea in them; that it is possible for everyone to be a winner. Welcome to the age of abundance.