I saw two things the other day that had a pleasing synergy about them.

The first was one of Seth Godin’s posts, in his customary style – a seemingly irrelevant anecdote, a quick insight extrapolated, then an open question left dangling.

You can read it here, but the gist is about how frequently ruled we are by how competitive a given situation requires us to be. His example is the competition inherent in driving – it feels so instinctive, and yet it soon evaporates when no-one is there to compete with.

Does this tell us something about how our own interests or goals are often over-ruled by a need to compete? That somehow, we’re drawn to the ‘sport’ in a way that distracts us from what it is we set out to achieve? As if, for example, we know we need to get to a certaoin destination at a set time, but I can’t think  about that right now, as this idiot is threatening to cut me up, and that’s way more important…

Or maybe it’s the opposite? Perhaps, it’s the very threat to our goals, and the very inhibition of our intent by others, that makes us act. As if, for example, I was quite happily driving along, when this idiot came out of nowhere, and was threatening to make me late…

Kind of tough to call, isn’t it? And I wonder how accurately we’d be able to answer those questions of our own behaviour.

It’s often the case, I think, that we can be galvanised by a sense of urgency, or a threat to something we’d considered a given. It’s this impulse that drives our response to the notion of scarcity: if I don’t take advantage right now, someone else will, and then I’ll be behind – I’d better act, and act now.

This impulse – of scarcity related to competitiveness – is central to the other thing I saw, a report on how Sony Ericsson have expanded their use of competition mechanics to fuel their burgeoning Facebook conmunity. 2.86m and growing, the brand engages users to submit content that best reflects the most important feature of the handset they’re promoting. So, if it’s a camera, then they ask people to submit the best possible pictures. If the USP is about the size of the handset, then consumers are asked to supply pictures of small things. You get the idea…

So, this isn’t particularly interesting, or innovative. But it was the term ‘contest strategy’ that got me. There it is, in the article, so it’s probably featured in the press release too. Interesting that it’s referenced so openly, I thought.

It seems to reflect that competitive impulse that Godin identifies – getting people to compete with each other, for the right of access to a limited supply. If you didn’t know you wanted it before, then how about it now that loads of others might….?

They seem to have found some fertile ground, to the extent that this has fuelled a whole year of community engagement. However creatively approached, this remains a way of seeding a series of new products. I guess it must be self-propagating: once it works it becomes harder to not do. Once a community has been enticed in on that basis, it must be hard not to think it’s expected.

This is undeniably a powerful use of competition and scarcity. But I have a hunch that this power could be channelled into something less self-interested, or at least less self-centred. I know the ‘contest strategy’ isn’t exactly corrosive, but might it not be slightly more edifying?

The real question is, how else  to create action, in the absence of competition.

Urgency has a galvanising effect. Simon Waldman talked recently about that moment in Apollo 13, where all Ground Control could do to help was advise the trapped astronauts that they had to make an air pump out of whatever they could find within the craft. Consider that task if it had been set on the ground, in non-real conditions. NASA would have made it into a multi-million dollar research project, that would have taken months and huge amounts of people before it was completed.

The astronauts did it hours. Because they had to.

Next time you’re in a meeting where everyone is talking too loudly, for too long, try a thought experiment. Imagine a hand-grenade was to be lobbed in to the room, through the window. What would happen? Probably, either some individuals, or the group, would immediately realise what should happen, there’d be some panic, and most people would probably make it out alive.

Next, imagine instead that the group was forewarned, and told that in 30 minutes’ time, a hand-grenade would be lobbed in to the room, and that the group’s challenge was to work out what to do.

They’d probably form a committee, elect someone to be in charge, decide on, then argue about, a strategy, put things to a vote, and generally waste the next 30 minutes.

Amazing what can happen when you’re given no choice but to act.