Competition is bad for innovation? Really?

I just read an article saying that competition is bad for innovation.

“The problem with innovation competitions” published in the Harvard Business Review, no less.

Counter-intuitive. They themselves admit it.

Because my first feeling is that having competition is supposed to make you faster, more original, to look for different solutions, to stand out.

But the article says that they have found that when people know they have competition, it puts pressure on them that cancels out their creativity.

I’m not the one to argue with the brainy and prestigious researchers.

But what I see is the opposite.

And for example what happened this weekend.

Here are some headlines:

  • “Sir Richard Branson takes off on ‘extraordinary’ space flight”.
  • “Richard Branson flies to the edge of space in a Virgin Galactic passenger rocket plane”.
  • “Billionaire Richard Branson reaches space in his own ship”.

We can argue whether this step, this innovation, is going to bring any real benefit to humanity.

Or if it is just a whim of an almost 71 year old kid with a lot of money.

Whether it can compete, for example, with a Roomba, which obviously fulfils a basic need on Maslow’s scale.

But the truth is that being able to take an almost 71-year-old man out of the reach of the earth’s gravity is an interesting challenge.

If Sir Richard Branson can do it then it will be within the reach of many other people.

It may just be the beginnings of space tourism.

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It may be the first stepping stone to being able to establish bases in orbit to go beyond the earth. Without you having to spend millions on cryptocurrencies and train for years.

And why has this milestone been achieved?

Well, I think these headlines reflect it:

  • “Bezos vs Branson: the billionaire space race takes off”.
  • “Rocket men: Bezos, Musk and Branson battle it out for space supremacy”.
  • “Factbox: Bezos, Branson and Musk: Who’s winning the space tourism race?”

Maybe Sir Branson, Richard to friends, would have got the same thing just thinking about his approaching 71st birthday.

But competition adds wings to the race.

Undoubtedly.

In fact the first big steps in the space race were taken during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

  • In 1957 the first artificial satellite in orbit (mini-point for USSR).
  • Also in 1957 the dog Laika goes into orbit (USSR 2 – USA 0).
  • 1961 Yuri Gagarin is the first human in orbit (3-0)
  • 1964 first woman, Valentina Tereshova, in space (this match gets complicated for USA)
  • 1966 first landing on the moon (USSR again)
  • 1969 first human on the moon (here USA manages to recover all the lost ground, we have a match)

And after this what? Well, the political situation really changed and the space race lost a lot of interest and, unfortunately, we have seen very little remarkable progress for quite a few decades.

Can it really be said that competition did not influence these results?

Would anything similar (or better) have been achieved in the absence of significant competition between countries?

In fact, we are currently in a similar situation again, although we have exchanged the now non-existent USSR for China.

And the moon for Mars.

You don’t need to be a superpower or a billionaire to innovate, to be creative in business and to achieve surprising results.

But, in my humble opinion, having some competition adds that time pressure that forces you to act fast, to keep your focus and not allow other issues to distract from that business priority.

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