Promoting Rivalry for Innovation’s Sake
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Executive Technology Report is written by Peter Andrews, Consulting Faculty, IBM Business Institute, and is published as a service of IBM Corporation. Visit http://www.ibm.com/ibm/palisades
Author: Peter Andrews
Innovation Strategist, IBM Executive Business Institute
12 March 2007
Unlike their counterparts in sales, most innovation teams tend to work in an atmosphere that resembles the world of the aristocratic amateur, with something approaching disdain for conflict. Yet, conflict is healthy, and innovation thrives on conflict. With mechanisms to engender trust and manage disputes in a lively, challenging environment, the new possibilities that open up may even surprise the participants themselves.
This Executive Technology Report is based on a personal essay by Peter Andrews, Consulting Faculty Member at the IBM Executive Business Institute in Palisades, New York.
The history of innovation is full of rivalries – some friendly, some less so – where creative people challenged each other, egged each other on and ultimately pushed each other on to triumphs that otherwise would not have been possible. Think of the scramble to decode DNA in Watson’s The Double Helix.1 Think of the competition among the Renaissance painters. Think of the exploration of North America and the race to the moon.
Yet, within corporations, it is often considered impolite to have even a friendly rivalry. Such behavior may be seen as anti-team, egotistical and disruptive. When a creative person is driven to say “I’m better than you are” and then to prove it, that’s immature.
There is a double standard in most cases. Somehow, this corporate polity is absent when salespeople are involved. When quarterly results are in play, corporations often encourage the creation of winners and losers in the coarsest terms. But innovators, though sometimes motivated by the successes of marketplace rivals, tend to work in an atmosphere that resembles the world of the aristocratic amateur, with something approaching disdain for conflict.
This makes little practical sense. Conflict is healthy, and innovation thrives on conflict. In fact, it is difficult to imagine doing anything that really matters without risk, failure, stress and the ruffling of feathers. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”
Stimulating workplace rivalry
Therefore, the goal of anyone who wants to lead a team that is brilliantly innovative should not be to avoid conflict, but to manage it. It even makes sense to introduce some conflict from time to time, in the form of rivalry. What is desired (and it is a delicate balance) is to have team members want to be heroes, not victors. Admiration must eclipse envy. And, most of all, trust must be engendered over betrayal.
Creating the right environment for friendly rivalry is exquisitely sensitive to culture and to the personalities involved. However, at a minimum, the leader or the team itself should seek to establish the following:
Norms and guidelines for behavior, especially with regard to any “displays” by heroes who have achieved success. (A victory dance should be joyful, not irritating.)
Ways to encourage and celebrate referenced “theft” of ideas and practices across the team. (If you can make people proud to have other team members adopt their ideas, you win.)
Clear indications of what risk is acceptable and ways to deal positively with failure. (The safer it is to try and fail nobly, the more ambitious people will be.)
A playful, highly social atmosphere where people learn to appreciate each other’s talents and accomplishments. (You can’t have friendly rivalries in a tense, unfriendly environment.)
Opportunities for understanding. (Creating touchstones, common terms and occasions for sharing all help.)
Regular, diverse sources of ideas and information that stimulate thinking and discussion. (Working, creative brains need to be fed constantly on a diverse diet.)
Shared questions that are thought provoking. (When people have common questions to focus on, they can compare their efforts directly.)
Non-monetary challenges that provide venues for regular competition and success. (Goals create success stories. And keeping money out allows the people to attach their own meanings to their successes.)
A place – be it virtual or real – that is the home for the team. (Space has forms and decorations that communicate who we are and who we are not.)
Opportunities for team members to publicly appreciate each other. (Making it okay for rivals to praise each other makes it easier to keep the rivalry friendly.)
Working through the rough spots
It won’t always be smooth going for a creative team, so the team must have mechanisms to recover from disputes that go too far. And, more importantly, social capital must be built up regularly and conscientiously. Discussions and commitments need to encompass the whole of who the people are, not just their professional lives.
If you are leading an ambitious, innovative team, continue to develop and practice your skills in communications, conflict management and listening. Take more time with people issues (and, if team members are not co-located, double that time again). And also, do the following:
Take time to know the players, their talents and their sensitivities
Keep asking about interests and skills – some talents are only revealed over time and important clustering of talents emerge with new situations and opportunities
Encourage eccentricity; it is good for a team to have colorful personalities (and it often provides an excuse for ideas that go astray)
Take (and show) an interest in the people and their activities, concerns and successes.
Be amused by the energized relationships – high drama is part of a team working at the limits, and it often tests and reveals character
Work to maintain respect, even mutual admiration, across the team
Be present and communicate often, thoughtfully and well
Find rivals for yourself
Find good models of rivalries from history and business, and emulate them
Exploit the power of language, especially in naming projects and giving people titles
Strategically pair people so that in working together, they build trust and respect
Keep it light, but don’t just keep it light
How do you know if the rivalry has become unhealthy? Ask these questions:
Is there evidence that people are cheating to get ahead of others on the team?
Are people complaining about other team members or disparaging them?
Are there personal attacks, rather than challenges to ideas and directions?
Has someone stopped participating with enthusiasm?
Have people become obsessed with minutiae that have very little relevance to overall team objectives?
Are people no longer having fun?
It is okay for people to be annoyed, even angry, with each other for short periods of time. But protracted periods of disaffection are dangerous and must be managed. In some cases, it might mean setting new expectations for behavior or individual counseling. In others, it might actually require changing the constituency of the team.
Overall, the goal is to maintain a lively, challenging environment. To get people engaged, on both professional and personal levels. The more people see their status and identity within the team as being vital, the more they will push to outdo each other. And that’s how new possibilities are opened up. Often to the surprise of the participants themselves.
So, don’t avoid conflict to the exclusion of achievement. In a cruel, probably unfair statement in the film The Third Man, the character played by Orson Welles says, "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."2 With something short of warfare, but more honest than a group sing-along, there is potential for greater team achievement.
1 Watson, James D. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Simon & Shuster, Inc. 1968, 1996.
2 This example is wrong in more than one sense: In terms of technical innovation, there is a lot from Switzerland, from high quality chocolate to the Swiss army knife to Velcro to Nobel Prizes from the IBM Lab. Also, the Swiss have not been entirely peaceful: they had civil wars during the cited period, and they were even famous as mercenaries. And last, but not least: The Black forest people in Germany claim the cuckoo clock is their invention. (The Swiss made the precision mechanics watches and still do.) - contributions from Walter Hehl, IBM.
Related publications of interest
White, Michael. Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers: Eight Scientific Rivalries that Changed the World. HarperCollins. 2001.
Uglow, Jenny. The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003.
Eckert, Bob and Johnathan Vehar. More Lightning, Less Thunder: How to Energize Innovation Teams. New & Improved. 2003.
Kelley, Tom, Jonathan Littman and Tom Peters. The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm. Doubleday. 2001.
Davila, Tony, Marc J. Epstein and Robert Shelton. Making Innovation Work: How to Manage It, Measure It, and Profit from It. Pearson Education, Inc. 2006.
Ursiny, Tim. Coward’s Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight. Sourcebooks, Inc. 2003
Foster, Richard and Sarah Kaplan. Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market – And How to Successfully Transform Them. Doubleday. 2001.
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Peter Andrews is an innovation strategist and consulting faculty member at IBM's Executive Business Institute. He has spent a career bridging the gap between the technical potential and the bottom line. He is the author of over 100 articles on innovation, emerging technology and leadership, and his Executive Tech Reports are featured monthly on the IBM services Web site. Andrews consults and holds workshops both within IBM and externally. He uses a variety of techniques to probe, extend and validate the opportunities presented by new technologies. He has helped banks, insurance companies, manufacturers and retailers develop their own capabilities to take a fresh look at emerging technologies, come to a common understanding of their value and take practical steps to exploit them. Notably, he has held innovation workshops with over 100 IBM Researchers worldwide that have helped them to determine the business implications of their inventions, recognize possible sponsors and create value propositions. Andrews has been actively involved in research and working at the leading edge for his entire career. His participation is always in demand for IBM Academy studies, and he is a popular presenter on the future, most recently as the closing keynote speaker for KMWorld 2006. He can be contacted at ">">, New York (845) 732-6095 and http://www.ibm.com/ibm/palisades
Conflict is healthy, and innovation thrives on conflict. With mechanisms to engender trust and manage disputes in a lively, challenging environment, the new possibilities that open up may even surprise the participants themselves.
Keywords and relevant phrases
Communication, conflict, corporate culture, development, dispute management, innovation teams, organisational goal, risk management, rivalry, support, trust.
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