Competition Is the Motor of Innovation

Posted: January 6, 2015 in Powerful Ideas
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Innovation and competition are always at the forefront of my discussions with my prospects and clients, specifically, how to make them work together so a company or organization can thrive.

I used to think the motor of innovation was trial and error experimentation, but my thinking has been evolving. Experimentation is how innovation takes place, but it is competition that is in the driver’s seat. In other words, the motivation to invent and tinker is what is driving people to innovate, not the mechanism of experimentation.

I enjoy history; so a few historical examples will illustrate my point. The Italian Renaissance was based on the discovery and spread of the ideas and writings of Classical Antiquity. But what drove people to look for, translate, and disseminate ancient works by philosophers, scientists, architects, and playwrights? It was competition between Italian city-states, and their sponsorship of thinkers, researchers, creators, and innovators. The Florentine Medici’s were probably the most active in this regard. It was their arrogance, egotism, and power-hunger which drove them to encourage and provide commissions artists and humanist intellectuals in their midst. It’s that flowering of rivalry and civic pride that drove the flowering of arts and philosophy that created Leonardo and Michelangelo. As an aside, the latter were always in competition with each other for commissions and repute.

The humanist ideals and thinking of the Renaissance couldn’t have spread to Northern Europe though without the impulse of the Protestant Reformation. It was anger at the abuses of the Catholic Church that led Martin Luther to lead the initial religious reforms. But it probably wouldn’t have happened without the political and economic fragmentation that reigned in the German Holy Roman Empire. Local potentates were eager to break free of papal and imperial authority, and this generated religious competition and political competition. This in turn created a market for ideas and writings.

By the late 16th and most of the 17th centuries, the Calvinist Dutch provinces became a magnet for thinkers who wished to work and publish with minimal hindrance from political and ecclesiastic authorities, Protestant or Catholic. It is no accident that the originators of modern science and thought, luminaries such as Descartes, Gassendi, Galileo, Hobbes, and Locke, either chose to settle in Holland or to publish their works there. Yes, there were incessant wars, revolts, and other forms of social struggle throughout Europe. Millions of people died for the sake of ideas about freedom, justice, or just plain hubris. But it was this state of confusion and intense rivalry that fuelled the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.

Other examples of innovation and creativity driven by competition and hubris abound. For instance, Darwin came up with the essentials of his theory of natural selection and natural evolution about 20 years before he decided to publish it. It was when he learned that Alfred Russell Wallace was about to scoop him that he rushed The Origin of Species to the publisher. Darwin was constitutionally anxious about upsetting established ideas and making enemies. It was the threat of someone else getting all the credit that outweighed his fear and anxiety about rocking the boat. And rock it he did.

I bring up these examples because we sometimes feel compelled to be “team players” and avoid rocking the boat. We don’t want to upset the perception of good feelings within an organization or company. However, as we see from history, it is ego-motivated competitiveness that drives innovation. Creators, tinkerers, inventors, and artists of all kinds want to be recognized and get the credit and glory that go with their products and ideas.

Free market economies with minimal regulation and interference are conducive to growth, creativity, innovation and development. The previous government of the Province of Quebec had created a program to choose economic “gazelles” for state support. Thankfully, the current Liberal government canned that idea as soon as it assumed power and the project was stillborn. How can you choose which companies and which ideas will work on the economic front? You can’t. It is free choice and competition that does this. If some companies fail at the attempt, that’s the price of innovation and economic development. Protection only works for the seemingly well-ensconced privileged few, and even then over the short term. That doesn’t just include “capitalists,” but also protected guilds, trades, and various commercial oligopolies.

The Uber threat has done more for competition and innovation in the taxi industry in one year than happened in the last three decades! Taxi companies that were sitting in the warm sun like fat cats have decided to launch competing applications, open up to some competition, maybe even including quicker service, cleaner cabs, nicer drivers, and demand-driven fees. Who knows what can happen next?

I have my money on hover cabs like they showed in the movie The Fifth Element.

I’m never too busy to discuss your needs or those of anyone else you feel may benefit from meeting or talking to me. So feel free to contact me at any time!

Richard Martin is a Master Strategist and Leadership Catalyst. Richard brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

  1. Ganesh says:

    Thanks Richard for your informative and unique take on this topic!

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