Who benefits and how? A holistic view of win-win-win

People talk about win-win and win-win-win – and I talk about wisdom producing long-term broad benefits. But what does this all mean, actually. In this message I explore how considering “the whole” influences what we think a benefit is, who wins, and how interconnectedness plays out in the realm of winning. This vast topic actually goes way beyond what I write here, but this will give you a taste of the directions we need to think in and what we can aspire to as we seek to co-create a world that works for all.

I’m interested in the nature of “benefits” because I frame wisdom as the ability to take into account what’s needed for long-term broad benefit. And wise democracy is democracy of, by and FOR the whole – i.e., benefiting the whole. So what, exactly, are those phrases referring to?

As I’ve reflected on this, I’ve been running across the term “win-win-win”. Wondering if it’s related to my sense of holistic benefits, I did a web search.

Most of the results were not encouraging. But one site offered an essay “Why Win-Win-Win Propositions Are The Future Of Business”. That seemed like it was in the ballpark, albeit within the constrained frame of capitalist business.

The author suggests that Win-Win-Win is the next stage after Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Triple Bottom Line (business concerned about profit, people, and planet). Win-Win-Win, she asserts, goes beyond this by building social and environmental benefits directly into a corporation’s business model. That’s good, as far as it goes. (A fun side note: One of the companies she cites as practicing Win-Win-Win is TOMS – which attracted my attention for some reason….)

3D Holistic Win-Win-Win

In a world of separate self-interested people, groups, and companies engaged in win-lose competition, the idea of win-win solutions (derived from game theory scenarios where “both sides” win) was a revolutionary leap forward. It opened the door to move beyond rivalry to cooperation, compassion, and a shared search for shared benefits.

The very few people who I found talking about win-win-win in my web search seemed to use it to indicate a generic leap beyond “both sides” winning (win-win) to “a lot of sides winning”.

Good enough. But I found myself wanting more than mere quantity from this win-win-win phrase. I want an expanded sense of who’s playing and what the winning is all about. So I dived into a broader examination of what constitutes a win or a loss – and who loses when others win, even when there are many winners.

That resulted in a model of three dimensions of winning, described below (with a fourth dimension added as a PS). Each of the dimensions can and should be explored much further than the glimpse I offer here. I invite you to see them as starting points for such a more holistic inquiry about what constitutes “benefit” and how to think about winning.

  1. The Depth Dimension: What does “winning” look like?
    Thinking about wants, needs, and well-being

Most people think of winning as involving rewards like money, status, or some other socially recognized benefit – or perhaps getting some specific thing we personally desire. Those motivate us to compete, so we can win.

But thanks to practices like Nonviolent Communication, we now know that underlying and beyond such “surface” rewards we usually find a realm of fundamental needs, like security, community, pleasure, food, health, and so on. Nearly everyone has such deeper general needs which can, luckily, be fulfilled in many different ways. Because of that, personal satisfaction can include others, like the happiness we may feel at a loved one’s success. The realm of universal needs provides a field within which win-win outcomes can readily be found with or even without compromise.

But beyond that, we can imagine “winning” involving deeper forms of benefit. Consider the value of meaning and contribution and spiritual realization. We find here a class of benefits which can be fully pursued without anyone losing. Which brings us to the next dimension:

  1. The Width (or Breadth) Dimension: Who wins? How many win?
    Thinking about self, others, communities, whole systems, the web of life

Win-win focuses on both self and other winning. Win-win-win expands that in ways that could refer to…

  • third or fourth parties winning who are also directly involved in the situation
  • interested parties who aren’t directly involved gaining benefits, perhaps including the whole community, the larger organization, faraway peoples, the world as a whole, and so on.
  • entities benefiting who may not even be human; they may be animals or plants, or bioregions and ecosystems, or mountains, air and water….

We can imagine win-win-win broad benefits stretching into all those realms.

Due to the interconnectedness of life, any one, two or more entities, groups or systems can win in ways that negatively or positively impact other entities, groups or systems. The more they all win, and the broader the benefits, the more we can legitimately talk about win-win-win.

And we may well pause here to reflect on who may be losing in order to enable others to win. Privilege, power and systemic dynamics often come up when we think about that.

  1. The Length Dimension: Winning within the flow of time
    Thinking about past, present, future, ongoingness, even eternity

We can ask: Are the benefits of winning happening for entities present now and/or in the future – and/or even those in the past, such as our ancestors (as in, who writes and benefits from the histories)? We can also ask: “Are these benefits short-term, long-term or even ongoing?”

Sustainability theory and Indigenous cultures ask us to consider how to meet our needs while making it possible for future generations to meet their needs.

These questions and considerations bring to mind the other two dimensions of winning: What kinds of longterm needs are we talking about and which future generations? Are we including the future generations of bats and microorganisms and riverbeds as well as people?

The expansion of awareness, knowledge of hidden systemic impacts, and the practice of Big Empathy (empathizing through barriers of space and time and systemic complexity) are challenges and resources for aspiring to achieve truly win-win-win outcomes.

  1. The Holistic Dimension – “Holons” Winning
    Thinking about the ubiquitous intimate weave of wholes and parts

All the “3 dimensions” discussed above actually have a fourth dimension that’s generated by the fact that every whole is also a part of one or more greater wholes – and every part is a whole in its own right. Take a minute to “get” this idea….

It means that everything that we’ve talked about so far could be considered through the idea that it’s all about how everything is both a whole and a part.

The term “holon” covers that ground. We – and everyone and everything around us – can be viewed as holons, meaning that we and they are not only whole entities, ourselves, but also parts of numerous larger wholes.

FOR EXAMPLE: I’m a whole person, Tom Atlee, while being simultaneously part of my family, my community, and the planet’s carbon cycle. AND my family, my community and the carbon cycle are themselves not only whole entities I can relate to, but they are part of larger realities and dynamic wholes, including the whole planet. This way of seeing the world covers everything.

There’s nobody here but just us holons!

So when we consider win-win-win, the third win COULD refer to all the larger and/or smaller wholes involved in the winning. Consider the dynamic tensions we often encounter between the individual and the collective in human life, or between the organism and the ecosystem in natural systems.

Can we use the term win-win-win to mean “We’re seeking to take into account the benefits (and/or costs) accruing to ALL the parties in this situation? AND we also seek to consider the benefits (and/or costs) accruing to the entities and systems that THOSE entities are involved with or which are involved with them, more or less, at greater and smaller scales”?

With this understanding of win-win-win, we are, in fact, considering what matters to the whole web of life – or as much of it as we can manage. We’re starting with the situation we’re focusing on here and now and considering how everyone and everything is related to it and thus may win or lose because of what happens with it.

With this perspective, a very big challenge emerges: To what extent and in what ways does the well-being of a particular system – a family, a community, an organization, a way of doing things – depend on the well-being of its constituents? And to what extent does the well-being of the whole impact the well-being of its constituents?

The relationships and trade-offs involved in this are often complex – sometimes problematic and sometimes full of possibilities. But they are always important, especially when we’re facing choices between nuanced long-term well-being and shallow short-term benefits.

These understandings are central to issues of sustainability, regenerativity, and the relationship of our civilizational design to the quality of life of all the human and natural lives and systems involved with it. In the most existential case, it raises the grain on the trade-offs between “stuff” (our extractive consumer economy) and “extinction”, while opening up examination of every dimension of life between those extremes.

There is lots to think about here and to work towards – especially when we aspire to collective wisdom.


PS: On January 10th I’ll be doing a free 2 hour intro to wise democracy’s Prime Directive – which is “to appreciate, evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole”. Why might we follow that directive? To promote long term broad benefit, of course. This message explores a big part of what’s involved. If you’re interested in participating in the class, there are still a few openings. And consider a donation to CII, as well.

Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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