Saturday, November 30, 2013

In Praise of Competition

Panama Canal under construction, 1907 By H.C. White Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
During the construction of the Panama Canal, several men held the position of Chief Engineer of this monumental project, some with excellent effect, others to disastrous results.  There was one, however, who stood above the rest, and that was George Goethals, the final Chief Engineer who led the project to completion over the final 7 years.

Mr. Goethals displayed many admirable leadership traits and some not so admirable.  I was intrigued by his use of competition to spur on his teams.  There were two ways in which he used competition to increase the quantity and quality of the work that was being attempted.  The first way was by simply noting the amount of cubic square feet of dirt removed by each steam shovel in their Canal Record, which was read by one and all who worked on the canal.  This simple public pronouncement of progress increased the amount of dirt removed tremendously.  Here's what one of the steam shovel operators commented about it's effect on him and his colleagues:

"We were going along doing what we thought was a fair day's work ... [but then] away we went like a pack of idiots trying to get records for ourselves."

I'll never forget a summer school PE class when I got the baton as  the anchor runner of my relay team.  We were in 2nd place, BUT, Ron Schwab was behind me in 3rd.  Ron Schwab was a cross between Arnold Schwarzeneger and Usain Bolt (slight exaggeration).  Nevertheless, I was afraid of Ron Schwab, so I ran and ran hard.  Somehow I avoided Ron Schwab until the finish line and passed the lead runner in the process to take  home first place for my team.  Competition made me run harder, with more determination, and therefore faster than  I would have run on my own.  There is  definitely a place for healthy competition.  When used strategically it allows individuals to perform with greater effort and intensity.  The same methods can be used to spur teams to work harder and give m ore concentrated effort.