Most of us love to watch a race. We love to see winners, losers, the eliminations. We like to observe others as they go through the highs and lows of a hard-fought competition.
Arguably the concept of the ‘innovation race’ has similar foundations. Many people and organisations view the world as a competitive race, with innovation being the key factor in helping us to accelerate forward. Innovation is often portrayed as a cutthroat business, with competitors vying to reach and remain in the pole position in whatever ways they can.
Hackathons and innovation competitions, which are popular in organisations today, can highlight this drive to ‘beat the others’ in order to get to the front. Even on an international scale, global innovation measures focus on ranking countries, which appears to sort them into winners and losers .
But does this competitive focus come at a cost?
The psychology behind the adrenaline rush
A competitive focus can literally ‘drain the brain’. Competition requires additional mental resources that can impact decision making and opportunities for constructive cooperation. Even though competitive initiatives such as hackathons may increase motivation temporarily, they may not actually support innovation over the long term.
It’s important to note that there is nothing essentially good or bad about the concept of competition and it can have both benefits and costs. In fact, a study in this area has revealed that we are neurologically wired for both competition and cooperation .
Both cooperation and competition have been found to help humans to make choices about the best courses of action in new situations and to monitor that action (executive functions) as well as predicting the behaviour of others in social situations (mentalising).
But there are some significant differences between the two states of mind. Competition requires more energy for processing (medial prefrontal activity), while cooperating appears to be more socially rewarding (indicated by the activation of the medial orbitofrontal area).
This means there are more systems in place to reward cooperation – so long as we can deal with that competitive urge, which can impact our energy and ability to collaborate.
From competitive to collaborative
Competition can be a motivating drive to assist with achieving goals – particularly when it is internally focused on improving oneself. It can, however, also become a destructive force if not managed effectively.
The line can be crossed when there is unchecked competition for the sake of beating others.
Research into the impact of competition on innovation at the organisation level has found that even at this level the relationship can be either positive or negative, depending on the perception of competition and specific approaches to innovation.
We’ve worked with a highly competitive stockbroker team where it was common for the individual to go in for the quick, short-term profit at the expense of long term relationships. The individuals in the team walked into the office each day ready to do battle, not only with the market but also with each other. As a result they were losing creative focus and losing overall effectiveness and profitability.
We were able to frame some exercises to enable the ‘team’ to discover these issues for themselves and to help them come up with innovative solutions. They soon came up with a simple but highly impactful modification to their work environment: they decided to move their desks — which had been facing outwards and away from each other — to form one central table with a shared focus.
When combined with teaching some collaborative innovation skills, this simple adjustment encouraged the team to collaborate more effectively. Along with significantly increasing their collaboration and engagement they eventually tripled their revenue as a team.
Redefining the race
Although the modern dictionary definition of competition usually refers to outperforming others and/or ‘winning’, the origins of the word are actually quite different.
The word itself, from the Latin competere, originally meant ‘to strive together (com) to seek (petere) some common interest’ — that is, to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. Perhaps this is a first clue to how we can start to shift our innovation focus.
Here is how to redefine the innovation process to better support collaborative and sustainable innovation in your organisation:
- Change the language around innovation, encouraging people to see it as a team relay rather than an individualistic race
- Establish innovation teams, and teach individuals tools that enable them to innovate collaboratively
- Encourage a focus on continued self-improvement for individuals and teams, and provide a culture that supports this
- Reward innovative ideas from teams – as well as from individuals
By focusing on the common shared vision rather than the individual competitive drive within the organisation, it may just be possible to reach mutually beneficial goals and better support innovation over the long term.
Gaia Grant is the co-author of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley August 2016) along with a number of other international bestselling books and resources. As a Director of Tirian International Consultancy Gaia helps to create innovation cultures for a range of international organisations (from Fortune 500 companies through to NFPs). Gaia is a keynote speaker and an HD researcher and lecturer at Sydney University Business School. For more information see http://the-innovation-race.com.
- Decety, J., Jackson, P. L., Sommerville, J. A., Chaminade, T., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2004). The neural bases of cooperation and competition: An fMRI investigation. NeuroImage, 23(2): 744–751
- Flavell, J. H. (1999). Cognitive development: Children’s knowledge about the mind. Annual Review of Psychology, 50:21–45.
- Malhotra, D. Ku, G. & Murnighan, J. K. (2008). When winning is everything. Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/05/when-winning-is-everything
- Sastry, A. and Penn, K. (2105). Why hackathons are bad for innovation. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3054023/hit-the-ground-running/why-hackathons-are-bad-for-innovation
- Shallice, T. (1998). From neuropsychology to mental structure. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Tang, J. (2016). Competition and innovation behaviour. Research Policy, Vol 35, Issue 1, February, Pages 68–82. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048733305001769