Does competition kill creativity?

I’m a big fan of collaboration. All the research shows that significant innovations emerge from collaborative groups, not from solitary loners. And I emphasize this message when I give talks to corporate audiences. But more than once or twice now, someone in the audience will ask: “Do you think competition will kill creativity?”

You might be surprised to learn that my answer is “No”–as long as it’s the right kind of competition. And lots of research shows that too little friction can block creativity, too.

Yes, competition kills creativity if it’s a destructive, winner-takes-all form of competition; if ideas are hoarded so that their owner gets sole credit; if communication stops because others are viewed as “the enemy”. But the most innovative companies, in fact, foster a form of collaborative competition. A good example is BMW. Young designers from the Munich headquarters to its DesignWorks studio in Los Angeles are often asked to compete against each other. Apple’s Macintosh computer was only one of two parallel windows-and-mouse computer projects created by Steve Jobs; the other was the Lisa. These two teams each invented slightly different solutions to basic problems; for example, instead of a mouse cursor control, the Lisa used a touch pad, now found on just about every laptop computer. Multiple parallel projects, in competition with each other, can drive innovation forward because they generate more potential solutions.

Groups that have no friction in them–groups where everyone gets along and shares the same beliefs–all too frequently fall into group think, a downward spiral where bad ideas are never criticized, and doomed projects are never terminated, because to do so would damage the group’s wonderful feeling of togetherness. Group researchers refer to this as cohesiveness, and too much of it blocks creativity.

Like so much else with innovation, the right solution is the Goldilocks solution: not too much cohesion, not too much competitiveness, but somewhere in the middle will be “just right.”

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