Systems Archetype 6 

“My Dad can pick up 50 pounds with one hand!”

“Oh yeah? Well, MY Dad can pick up 500 pounds with one hand!”

“HA! MY Dad can pick up a WHOLE CAR with just his pinky!”

Have you heard those lines on the schoolhouse playground before?

Escalation is obvious on the playground and the marketplace, as competitors keep raising the stakes of the game. Marketplace escalation is generally good, as competition builds greater value though innovation. There is a dark side to escalation, like the political rhetoric between nations.

The Unloading Contest

A distribution center received 16 containers of the exact same product on the same day. With two free days before detention started, the receiving manager had a problem. The five available doors exacerbated the problem, because the manager had to keep doors open for the regular freight. The manager figured if he put two doors to the containers, two teams of two employees could unload all the containers in two days. He formed two teams of two workers each and assigned them to the dock doors. If each team knocked off four containers each day, all 16 containers would be unloaded by the end of the second day.

To make things a little more interesting, the receiving manager offered a contest — the team that unloaded the most containers in the two days would win happy hour beers on him. The manager figured that offering a prize to the winning team would ensure that all the containers got unloaded.

The teams got right to work, and started to unload at a rapid pace. Working at adjacent doors, each team could track the other team’s progress. Team #1 finished the first container in less than 90 minutes and let the supervisor know they were ready for the second container. Team #2 finished about five minutes later, and then waited for the yard truck to swap out Team #1’s container before the jockey swapped out their container.

Team #1 gained a healthy head start on the second container, which Team #2 noticed. But team #2 had a plan. They figured out a way to stage empty pallets in the container, and unload deeper and deeper. As they got to the three-quarter empty point, Team #1 almost caught up to them. That is when one of Team #2’s workers told the yard jockey to bring them the next container.

The jockey had some other work to complete, so when he came to pull the empty from the door, Team #2 was done and had all the freight unloaded. They skipped the pallet wrap and label step as they unloaded, and while the jockey swapped out the trailer, they completed the wrap and tag steps.

Meanwhile, Team #1 finished about the time the jockey pulled the empty out of the door, and they waited until the jockey finished swapping out Team #2’s container.

Working on their third container for the day, Team #2 had the lead, and kept using their rapid unload and stack process to work through the container quickly. Team #1 looked at the process Team #2 had worked out and started using it. Before long, Team #1 performed better than Team #2. Skipping the lunch break, they asked the yard jockey to drop the next container at an unused door while they worked their third container. As soon as Team #1 was done with their third container, they switched over to the other door and tore into their fourth container of the day.

Team #2 asked the jockey to bring them their next container when they hit the three-quarter point, and took care of the wrap and tag as the jockey swapped out the empty and dropped their fourth container. They looked over and saw that Team #1 was well into the fourth container, apparently pulling ahead.

By the end of the day both teams had unloaded five containers, and had started working the sixth container by the end of the shift. The next day they hit it hard again and finished all the containers by lunchtime. Team #2 finished about ten minutes before Team #1, winning the beer prize. In the receiving manager’s eyes, both teams are winners, and he treats both to a happy hour reward.

What's Happening?

Two parties see their welfare as being dependent on a relative advantage over the other party. The success of one party creates a threat for the other party, which then ratchets up effort and innovation in response, and gains an advantage. As the advantage goes back and forth, from one party to the other, both parties become more competitive.

What the People Say

Typically, there is constant chatter about the competitor, constant vigilance, and a competitive focus. The trailing party may complain about unfair tactics or advantages.

What to Do?

Escalation can be positive in the short term, but if it is not managed with care, the ugly side appears and does more damage than good. In our example above, the receiving manager rewards both teams to help boost morale. Without that gesture, the competitive spirit could have crushed morale. The outcome could have been much different if both teams had not taken innovative problem-solving approaches.

  1. Watch for unintended escalation:  Conditions inside an organization can create escalated actions between groups, departments, even individuals. Leaders should watch for signs of unhealthy competition, or payback for imagined or real trespasses. Look to turn the process to a win-win situation for both parties.
  2. Stop the cycle:  If an escalation accelerates and creates damage, the leader should remove the prize. Use mediation to get to the root cause of the dispute that started the cycle, and work for win-win solutions to move the competition back to a healthy state.
  3. Aggressively peaceful: If  you are the leader of a team caught in an escalation loop with another group, go aggressively peaceful with the other side. One form of being aggressively peaceful is to stop all competitive actions and ignore what the other party is doing. If between people, one party can approach the other and surrender by saying things like “Man, you guys got so good that we just can’t keep up. How about teaching us how you did it?”

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