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Jurgen Appelo calls himself a creative networker. But sometimes he's a writer, speaker, trainer, entrepreneur, illustrator, manager, blogger, reader, dreamer, leader, freethinker, or… Dutch guy. Since 2008 Jurgen writes a popular blog at, covering the creative economy, agile management, and personal development. He is the author of the book Management 3.0, which describes the role of the manager in agile organizations. And he wrote the little book How to Change the World, which describes a supermodel for change management. Jurgen is CEO of the business network Happy Melly, and co-founder of the Agile Lean Europe network and the Stoos Network. He is also a speaker who is regularly invited to talk at business seminars and conferences around the world. After studying Software Engineering at the Delft University of Technology, and earning his Master’s degree in 1994, Jurgen Appelo has busied himself starting up and leading a variety of Dutch businesses, always in the position of team leader, manager, or executive. Jurgen has experience in leading a horde of 100 software developers, development managers, project managers, business consultants, service managers, and kangaroos, some of which he hired accidentally. Nowadays he works full-time managing the Happy Melly ecosystem, developing innovative courseware, books, and other types of original content. But sometimes Jurgen puts it all aside to spend time on his ever-growing collection of science fiction and fantasy literature, which he stacks in a self-designed book case. It is 4 meters high. Jurgen lives in Rotterdam (The Netherlands) -- and in Brussels (Belgium) -- with his partner Raoul. He has two kids, and an imaginary hamster called George. Jurgen has posted 145 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Be Selfish... Work Together

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I am a selfish person. Though I gladly do things for other people, and give stuff away for free, I tend to do that when I believe I’m being good to myself. The pursuit of my happiness has led me to offer jobs to unfortunate unemployed souls who needed a second chance, to give projects to people in desperate need of experience, to buy stuff from people in poor countries, and to be a supporter for Amnesty International. All because I’m selfish.

Genes are selfish too, as Richard Dawkins pointed out some decades ago. But, despite their selfishness, in the human genome 1,195 genes cooperate to produce the heart; 2,164 genes team up to make white blood cells; and 3,195 genes are jointly responsible for the human brain. They are teams of selfish genes, evolving together because, in all their selfishness, they figured out that it pays not to be on their own. It increases their chance of survival in the harsh environment of the gene pool.

An interesting form of teaming up within one species is found in the ants called Pheidole pallidula, which consists of small ant workers and large soldiers ants. When an intruder attempts to enter the nest, the worker ants pin down the intruder, while they recruit a soldier to decapitate the victim. (Don’t you just love the things teams can learn from nature?)

There are also many forms of teaming up between different species. One example is lichen, which is a partnership, or symbiotic association, between algae and fungi. The algae are photosynthesizers, capturing energy from the sun, while the fungi have great water-storage capabilities. This symbiotic relationship enables lichen to survive in barren environments. The team of two species can do what neither of the individual species can do alone.

Selfish cooperation is a matter of costs vs. benefits, where the small cost of giving or sharing leads to greater immediate or deferred benefits. Some call it reciprocal altruism, or win-win reciprocity, or you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours. It is why many jewelers in Antwerp have snuggled up and settled together in a few streets called the Diamond District. It is why fierce competitors like Google, Microsoft, and Apple are regularly seen to work together. It is why I’m answering people’s questions for free, promoting the books of my competitors, and offering jobs to suicidal kangaroos.

The root cause of the paradox of competition vs. cooperation (sometimes referred to as coopetition) can be traced back to the 235-year old book The Wealth of Nations, by economist and philosopher Adam Smith. He described division of labor as the concept of people working together, and specializing in different tasks, while still working for personal profit. And, as if guided by “an invisible hand,” the whole system then tends to improve the lives for everyone involved.

It is the same in organizations. Employees are competitors because they are hired individually. They frequently have eyes for the same job openings, the same cool projects, the same management positions, and the same parking space right near the entrance to the office building. But people team up together because it makes them more productive, gives them more joy, and better end-of-year evaluations.

We are all selfish. And the smartest selfish people understand that it is in their own self-interest to work together and be nice to each other. This coincides with the discovery of mathematician Robert Axelrod, who noticed that the game strategy Tit-for-tat, which tells someone to play nice as long as the competitors play nice as well, is one of the most successful survival strategies in games and in nature. It also coincides with Christopher Avery’s observation that teamwork is an individual skill. And philosopher Ayn Rand wrote books and essays on what she called the virtue of selfishness. Though her rigid doctrine has been criticized by many, at some level she did have a point.

These examples all tell the same story: Adam Smith’s invisible hand gently pushes people into cooperative behavior, because they all want the best for themselves.

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Jurgen Appelo. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Daniel Lourenço replied on Wed, 2010/06/09 - 5:21am

Hi Jurgen

Thank you for this article. It is great! In fact, I work in a software company that makes available a platform and we also have a services area. One of the complex aspects of our business is how we are constantly in Partner / Competitor relationships with our partner companies (that also provide services) - they can be partners by using out platform, they can be partners by participating with consultant efforts in our Professional Services projects and we can be partners by participating in their Professional Services projects. Of course, in some situation we compete for opportunities (from a solution offer point of view). And it is amazing to see how beneficial out partnerships are (even if in some situations we are positioned as competitors). The coopetition concept is key to understand this situation.

I think one other interesting aspect to include is the fact that in any value chain there are tensions that work in several directions: producers might compete with each other when fighting for opportunities, but can be allies when trying to fight unwanted customer behaviors or market pressures. Workers can compete for a job position, but can be allies when striking to get better conditions from their bosses.

Thanks again for your great article!


Daniel Lourenço

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