The Importance of Cooperation to a Big Vision

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright August 2015


If you want to get into history books, be a leader who succeeds at a Big Vision.

Some places get the Big Vision right: Meiji Restoration Japan starting in the 1870's, the United States starting in the 1780's, and Singapore starting in the 1960's are shining examples. Many more do not: Midwest America starting in the 1960's, the post-Ottoman Empire Middle Eastern States starting in the 1920's, and most of the world starting in 1930 (the Great Depression) are examples of trying and not getting it right. Instead of getting a successful Big Vision launched the people involved in these situations end up staying distracted and doing a lot of squabbling instead.

One of the differences between success and failure is how threatened a community feels. If a community doesn't feel threatened by something outside the community it will get complacent and feel that engaging in acrimony instead of cooperation is not a big cost. Conversely, when a community feels deeply threatened by outsiders, it will put aside internal differences and mutually cooperate, and one form of that cooperating is seeing the community Big Vision come to life.

What it takes to get a Big Vision done right is the topic of this essay.


The inspiration for this essay was reading a Special Report on Singapore in the 18 Jul 15 issue of The Economist. One of the themes in this series of articles is how threatened Singapore has felt since it was cast out of the newly formed nation of Malaysia in 1965, this happened just two years after Malaysia gained independence from the British Empire. Over the last fifty years Singapore has responded very successfully to that being-cast-out trauma, and become a shining example of successful economic development in the Far East.

The cost of acrimony

Acrimony is arguing instead of cooperating. The cost of acrimony is a lot of missed opportunity -- people argue instead of getting things done. Acrimony often follows complacency -- many of the people in the community think things are going just fine, even if there is no growth or a little decline. When the ambitious folk of the community call for disruptive improvement, and what follows is arguing rather than cooperating, and as a result nothing gets done, acrimony is in charge. Arguing without producing tangible results is acrimony -- when it goes on for a long time, lots of people's feelings get hurt, the ambitious leave, and both cooperation and progress become even harder.

There are several ways to reduce acrimony, responding to external threat is one. Another is getting behind a "magnificent work".

Moving from acrimony to Big Vision with a Magnificent Work

The converse to acrimony is everyone getting to together to work towards completing a Big Vision. Getting behind creating a magnificent work is one way to do this.

An ancient example of this happening is The Pyramids. This series of Big Visions (each pyramid) started when the Nile Valley unified under a single pharaoh. Prior to that unifying happening the valley had lived with many rulers each controlling part of the valley. The unification was a violent one -- wars were fought and won -- and after the final victory there were still many people unhappy with the outcome. Revolt was likely.

The way the unifying pharaoh started solving the acrimony problem was by ordering the peoples of the various Nile regions to contribute to his Big Vision: building a pyramid. They came together to accomplish this, and as they did pride built, and acrimony declined. In the end, it was so successful that pyramid building became an activity repeated many times, and part of the Nile culture for many decades.

We see and admire the result today.

Building a magnificent public work is one way to overcome acrimony, and a common one. Another example is the Mormons doing temple building during the mid-1800's as they moved from place to place. A closely related example is cathedral building in Europe in the Middle Ages. Today's equivalent is hosting Olympic Games and World Cups.

Another way to get people to engage in cooperating is to get them worrying about an external threat, and then offering a Big Vision solution.

Moving from acrimony to Big Vision with an External Threat

External threats are another common and powerful motivator for Big Vision-style change. Here are some examples.

The Japanese experience

The Meiji Restoration, mentioned above, is an example of using an external threat to inspire cooperation and working for a Big Vision.

Japan in the early 1800's was in an isolationist swing of its cultural pendulum and ruled by a Shogun -- originally an assistant to the emperor, but now the chief decision maker. Its ports were mostly closed to international trade and the leadership was happy to continue with a mostly self-contained feudal style culture that was comparable to what nearby China and Korea were also experiencing.

Then came a big surprise. In 1854 the American naval commander Commodore Perry came to visit Tokyo with a fleet of high technology warships. (This is an early example of Gunboat Diplomacy.) He came asking for a trade treaty and got the Convention of Kanagawa which established trade between the US and Japan. His warship display also convinced many important Japanese leaders that it was time to end their complacency.

Why? Because they saw this as a threat. If they didn't embrace what it took to make these high tech warships, someone who did would come knocking on their door in a much less peaceful way than Perry, and kick their butts.

Far from everyone was convinced that these warships were a meaningful threat, but enough were that the Shogunate government was overthrown and replaced with the Meiji Restoration government. (In nearby China and Korea complacency won out, and, yes, both got their butts kicked.)

The leaders of this Meiji Restoration used the threat to keep all the Japanese people focused on transforming from an agricultural and feudal society into a modern industrialized society. These new leaders were good at what they did. They completed this Big Vision task in about fifty years, and by 1900 Japan was ready to become an industrialized colonial power. First on the list for colonizing: Korea. (An ouchie for the Koreans that continued until Japan lost WWII in 1945.)

The Singapore experience

In 1965 Singapore was the Beirut of the Far East. It was cosmopolitan, a trading city, and had a mix of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian inhabitants. It could have easily ended up like Beirut did: experiencing a fifteen year long civil war between its various inhabitants. But it did not. Instead these people came together, worked together for a Big Vision -- developing their city into a rich and prosperous one that could defend itself -- and fifty years later they emerged as one of the most prosperous cities in the world.

The leadership of Singapore was successful at harnessing the external threat to keep the residents of Singapore cooperating to accomplish the Big Vision of transforming the city's economy and thinking.

Like the Meiji Restoration, this was accomplished with strong central leadership. In this case a dictatorship. It is now famous as a dictatorship that worked well, and it is considered a model for other communities who think they need a dictatorship.

Part of what made it work well was the constant threat that if Singapore got acrimonious, its neighbors were ready, willing and able to take advantage of the discord. Instead of being acrimonious, the people of Singapore cooperated.

The US experience

In its early years, the early 1800's, the US faced external threats comparable to those facing Japan and Singapore. The big external threat was the British coming back. But there was an interesting addition to the US's threat list: the wilderness. This was both a threat and an opportunity. Indians supported by the French, British or Spanish could come raiding, and... wow... what opportunities to settle and carve out a personal vision of how the world should be run! For both reasons, cooperating to exploit it would make a Big Vision happen, and the benefits of cooperating rather than being complacent were much clearer than in most other circumstances. This difference in being able to easily see the benefits of cooperating is at the root of American Exceptionalism.

The Americans took advantage, and the results were many versions of Big Visions -- new farms, new cities, new factories and exploiting new technologies all became parts of the Big Vision mix. America did, indeed, become exceptional.

Big Vision ≠ Harmonious Paradise

Any community pursuing a Big Vision is going to have lots to argue over. The big difference between acrimony and a successful Big Vision is that the arguing doesn't stop the progress -- big, disruptive changes continue to happen.

An example of some serious arguing that didn't stop the progress was The American Civil War of 1861-4. Even with that tragic war, the level of cooperation in the US remained exceptional. The big, disruptive changes continued to happen, and the vigorous arguing continued right along with it.


Vigorous cooperation lets a Big Vision happen. This state of vigorous cooperation is not an easy state for a community to achieve. The more common condition is complacency and acrimony.

For a Big Vision to happen the leaders of the community need to convince people that cooperating is necessary. One common way of doing this is to offer the people of the community a magnificent work to construct, such as a spectacular pyramid or the buildings for hosting an Olympics games. A second common way is to exploit worries about an external threat. The people worry, and the leaders convince them that cooperating on the Big Vision, such as industrializing the community, will end the threat.

Making a Big Vision happen is not easy. This is why went it does happen it makes great history.


--The End--