How do you win at something? In most activities there is a goal to reach and success is defined by the attainment of that goal. But who defines these goals? Individuals in large organizations seldom have the luxury of setting their goals in isolation. They must define them based on the goals of their teams which in turn are defined by the goals of the organization. Is meeting goals “winning?” In sports, you win by defeating other competitors or beating your own record. In the arts, you win by delivering a great performance worthy of a standing ovation. In the military, you win by kicking the living daylights out of the enemy or at least preventing them from fulfilling their objectives. In business, you can win by dominating markets and eliminating the competition but that’s not the only way to win.

Organizations can fail when they set their sights too high and this can happen when they view their situation as a zero-sum game. Yet that can often be a mistake. In his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright figured that society becomes increasingly non-zero-sum as it becomes more complex. Business legend Jack Welch, explaining the way in which businesses are part of a complex ecosystem, wrote:

winning in business is not a zero-sum game. In sports, when one team wins, the other loses. In business, when a company wins, there are usually collateral winners, too. The executives and shareholders, of course, but also employees, distributors, and suppliers. Success often leads to dozens of startups that supply the “mother” company, creating jobs, the lifeblood of any society.

In an interview with Wired magazine in 2000, former US President Bill Clinton explained:

The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero-sum solutions. That is, win–win solutions instead of win–lose solutions…. Because we find as our interdependence increases that, on the whole, we do better when other people do better as well — so we have to find ways that we can all win, we have to accommodate each other…

An example of a win-win relationship is one in which companies engage in coopetition, cooperating on some fronts while competing on others. Such relationships are becoming more common as organizations diversify beyond their traditional markets.

When presented with a pie and other parties at a table, someone with a zero-sum view will try to grab as big a piece of the pie as they can get, believing that they have to eat it before someone else does. Yet when the pie is big – and it may be bigger than it appears to be – eating that much pie can make one feel ill. The smart organization takes just enough pie to satisfy its hunger and focuses on baking pies in the form of new opportunities. This kind of strategy requires a more collaborative mindset but it may more attainable, and ultimately more sustainable, than a strategy in which the winner takes all. This kind of cross-collaboration is very common in artistic circles. Instead of simply thinking that they are competing against all other artists for the same market, musicians, actors and other artists routinely cross-collaborate and co-invent within and across genres, producing new works that can establish new audiences.

Want to win? Set attainable goals and consider whether winning really means having to do it all by yourself.