Collaboration and Competition: Balkanization vs. Bounded Cohabitation

Small collaborative groups often exist in isolation or in competition with other groups within an organization.

Unhealthy Competition: Balkanization1

This is the second pattern of collaboration that entrenches status quo (see Contrived Collegiality).


  1. : to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units
  2. : divide, compartmentalize <now pop culture has been balkanized; it is full of niches, with different groups watching and playing their own things — Richard Corliss>


In a Balkanized environment, one team’s win is another team’s loss or, at least, one team’s loss is not every team’s loss.

A company that organizes itself by specialty and doesn’t matrix well to projects lends itself to balkanization but leadership can encourage politics under any structure if they distribute rewards based on unclear, unfair or arbitrary criteria.

Valuable learning in one group is not communicated or is disputed and not widely adopted. Managers drive to surface shows of success. Individuals are not encouraged to true joint work across organizational boundaries.

Agile is often introduced bottom up without executive sponsors in less than optimal cultures. In this context, development teams have dependencies on teams that do not buy into agile values. Developers are separated from decisions about opportunities, product portfolios, potential revenues, and product features. This is both a fragile place for agile teams and also diminishes opportunity for the company.

Healthy Competition: Bounded Cohabitation

Internal competition can be used to spur original thinking and organizational change.

Nonaka and Takeuchi describe a concept of “bounded cohabitation” where teams are set in productive competition with each team pursuing a different set of premises and value propositions all geared toward the same outcome.2

The example they use is detective work. One approach is to form autonomous teams around different premises: premeditated murder, crime of passion, accident, natural causes, etc. Let the teams self-organize assembling the appropriate numbers with relevant skills and experience for their specific premise.

The teams investigate independent of each other. Under their premise, each team may look past evidence others find relevant but also follow leads other teams wouldn’t think to pursue. Eventually, one team establishes the most plausible course of events. The shared outcome is met and the teams re-organize around the next investigation.

Japanese manufactures often form multiple engineering teams around the same design challenge; e.g., an engine meeting novel requirements of size, efficiency and performance. They adopt the best solution incorporating other good ideas into the current or future products.

In one case, Sony merged two teams pursuing different product strategies: (1) an evolution in video tape players and (2) a revolutionary digital non-linear editor.

Synthesizing those world views resulted in the digital video editor with engineer-friendly analog controls that broadcast centers could rack into their existing facilities. This new technology with a familiar form factor created a new market that Sony decks dominated.

An executive sponsoring agile adoption must strive for healthy internal competition. Carve out self-organizing teams. Encourage them to follow their own paths to a clear, common goal. Mutually agree upon performance measures. Retrospect across teams to determine what’s working and why. Allow for wrong paths, allow for variation and embrace the unexpected.

The concepts and examples in this post are drawn from:

1 Hargreaves A. and Fullan M., What’s Worth Fighting for in Your School?, Teacher’s College Press, New York, 1991.

2 Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H., Hitotsubashi on Knowledge Management, John Wiley and Sons, Asia, 2004.

2 thoughts on “Collaboration and Competition: Balkanization vs. Bounded Cohabitation

  1. Pingback: I’m a Sideways Agilist | Ken H. Judy

  2. Pingback: Bounded Collaboration | Ken H. Judy

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