Blog archive


The Power of Win-Win

What is “win-win”? It’s a way of thinking whereby I seek to create value for you, as well as for me. I win AND you win.

But why is it important? Is it just some piece of meaningless self-help-ese? It does sound a little too good to be true. Surely, if I gain something there is less to go around? So you lose.

Or is win-win a way of thinking that creates real business benefit, in both the short- and the long-term?

I think it is the latter, and I am not the first. The idea has a long history in management science.

Mary Parker Follett, one of the very first management gurus, writing in the 1920s, called it ‘integration’, and it fit well as part of her, then, quite different way of thinking about collaboration and people working together.

Game theory of the 1940s called win-win the ‘non-zero-sum’ game, contrasting it with, for example, ‘win-lose’ (or zero-sum) games – where one player wins and the others lose.

Dialogue and communication research in the 1980s, such as the Harvard Negotiation Project, made win-win a central tenet – and the broader interpersonal goal of successful collaboration continued to emerge as crucial business idea.

But it was perhaps the late Stephen Covey who really popularised the term in business and management thinking.

Picking up an old copy of the The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People I see he devoted several pages to the concept. Beyond the detail, his essential point is that win-win is a ‘frame of mind’, a paradigm, a set of assumptions.

It is only by adjusting our frame of mind that we start to see the benefits.

More recently still, complexity science has gotten in on the act. The argument made by Robert Wright, for example, is that the more interdependent our world gets, the more we need to find win-win solutions. That’s because as we become less isolated we do better when others also do well.

This makes a lot of sense on a limited planet with limited resources where we are all highly interconnected – not just through the Internet but in every way from food chains to human migration to climate.

And John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, writing in Conscious Capitalism, bring the idea right up to date. Introducing the term Win6, they have extended it to all stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, the public/communities, shareholders, and even the environment.

Competitors are included too – suggesting that we can even have a win-win relationship with people we sometimes think of as our foes. They can help us to educate a market, stimulate us to do better ourselves, and so on.

As all these thinkers point out, looking for the win-win in every situation isn’t always the easiest thing. But it does lead to better, more sustainable results.

Why? Perhaps because win-win thinking shifts the focus to our relationships.

If I win AND you win, we are more likely to want to help each other again in the future. We get on better, and that encourages us to work together to create ever better results.

That’s the social explanation. There are probably others. Integration – the bringing together of order and chaos – may also naturally be a more effective way to be, and certainly seems more appropriate for the times we live in.

But perhaps, above all, win-win draws our attention to the purpose of the games we play. Whether it is the game of business. Or of sport….

2 minute CBS News video

(Thanks to Zoe Nicholson for the link)

This, I think, is ultimately why win-win is an important management and business concept – because it makes us think about strategy, about the meaning and purpose of our organisations. It makes us question why we are doing things and whether we are getting the results we really want. In our businesses, in our economy and in the broader world.

It is thus, potentially, a game-changer for us all.

This post was filed under Digital transformation Comments are currently closed.