When Competition Stifles Innovation

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Competition, it’s said, is good. Especially for innovation.

True, up to a point. But, there’s a problem with leaning too heavily on competition as a core driver of innovation. Which is that you unwittingly risk capping your own willingness to birth genius at whatever level your closest competitor gives in at.

Let’s say you’re a running a team of hacker/entrepreneurs working on a new platform or business model. You know you’ve got three others out there all working on the same problem. It’s insanely complex and takes a huge amount of time, effort and, depending on your efficiency and burn-rate, money.

You and your competitors are humming along, pushing each other to work harder, faster and smarter.

A few months in, one competitor can’t handle the quest any more and bails. Okay, you figure, so it’s down to you and your two remaining friendly foes. Every time they announce a breakthrough, it half-pisses you off and half inspires you to dig deeper, create from a truer place.

Innovation swirls all around you. But then the VC who funded competitor number two pulls the plug on them, leaving them still jonesing to be the ones who create the coolest stuff, but flat out of money. They fold. Now, it’s just you and one other. That’s still enough to keep you pushing hard, but you don’t feel the pressure quite as much any more. You start to wonder if you can win the innovation derby not so much through breakneck revelation, but through surviving the war of attrition.

Then, sure enough, it happens. Your last remaining competitor crashes. Leaving just you.

If your core motivation for innovation was to kick the collective asses of those around you, you may feel like you won. But, pretty quickly, you wonder why you’re still doing what your doing. And because the thing that most drove you to continue pushing the creation envelope was beating other people, you stop working so hard, digging so deep.

Your capacity to create stalls at the place at which your last competitor dropped off. You’ve beaten them, but you’ve also beaten yourself from that moment on.

Because you’ve only delivered on the promise of what your longest surviving competition could handle, rather that the innate potential that lies within you.

The greatest entrepreneurs, artists, hackers, athletes and dream-makers in all fields know that nobody matters but them. Their greatest achievement to date is their only real competition.

The highest performing athletes compete against their own personal bests. They build better, cooler stuff because they live to push the envelope of their own capabilities.

So, yes, competition against others can be a powerful incentive to act. But, be very careful about leaning on it too much or for too long. Or you may find yourself tops in your field, but still far from what you know or innately sense you’re truly capable of. And a long way short of making manifest the gifts you’re capable of bringing to the world.

Create, first and foremost, in the name of coming alive, not leaving others dead.

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17 responses

17 responses to “When Competition Stifles Innovation”

  1. JB says:

    I suppose that at the end of the competition you could be left wondering if it was worth it all, and what did the others see that encouraged them to leave it alone. At that point you had better be close to achieving or you could simply be the last one to give up.

  2. Sean Cook says:


    I love your take on this, and find it especially relevant to where I am with my blogs and my business. As usual, you are a refreshing kick in the ass.



  3. dave r. says:

    my problem with “competition” is when a competitor steals your idea/catch phrase or the actual name of my company in the body of their blog or internet ad…ive had to learn to work around it.

  4. Concert Diva says:

    Yeah.. the competition is yourself.. or maybe I should say ‘the challenge.’ I mean, seriously, was Bill Gates looking over his shoulder checking out the other guys?

    My son and I are launching new music sites and sometimes he calls me up concerned about how we’re going to outrank some of the big dogs. He looks at them with their brand names and high page ranks and wonders how the heck we’re gonna do it.

    I try and encourage him to ignore the competition because in the end none of that really matters. What matters is how WE play the race. What we offer our visitors. Focus, focus and we will achieve our goals.

    BTW, We have already bumped some of the ‘big dogs’ down the Google front page with our premier site.

    dee 🙂

  5. Geoffrey says:

    I resonate with Dee.

    In our business (as learning consultants) we are constantly ahead of the game in our core understanding of what is going on and in how we communicate our ideas and processes. But once done, the stuff is out there. And there are bigger guys with very big nets, for whom it is easy to track what’s going on – and then reframe it. In effect, it is easy for competitors to appropriate stuff that has a buzz, and then dilute it and sell it as almost the same thing, riding the wave of the buzz (as it were).

    Our core response is to rely on who we are as people and practitioners and on the experience that people have with us
    (and sometimes just marvel at how creative our competitors can sometimes be!).

  6. Anne Wayman says:

    Jonathan, maybe this is why I mostly believe there is no competition – one of those almost or slightly true generalizations.

    “Create, first and foremost, in the name of coming alive, not leaving others dead.” is a great start on a slogan – in the name of coming alive. YES!

  7. Right, the only real competition is in your head. When your so-called competitors become your peers and your circle that’s when things start to get interesting!

    Business needs to be fun again!

  8. Jeffrey Tang says:

    Wholeheartedly agree with you.

    Another way to put it: “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” – Ayn Rand

  9. I always think of Secretariat in the Belmont. At some point in the second furlong, he said “I have no competitors, I shall run as fast as a thoroughbred can.” And he did.

    Keeps me focused.

    Great post.

  10. It’s way too easy to get caught up in what the competition are doing and how to out hustle them. I like to think of competition as potential allies in what I’m doing and how I can work with them to make something even better.

    That said you have to work towards your own vision and purpose and stay true to that. Innovate and boldly go where no other nutter has gone before. Otherwise we’ll end up with more of the ‘same same but different’.

    Great take Jonathan


  11. Ivan Walsh says:

    Fron one angle it makes no difference.

    What matters is whether you succeed or not.

    Whatever you believe is true… for you!

  12. Rob says:

    Getting through limiting beliefs can cost more than any so-called competition. We need to create on a regular basis in order to push the bar to a high level. I have found personally, that focusing on myself has been my greatest weapon.

  13. I don’t know about competition driving innovation (or not) but that phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is certainly true. When the heat’s on the ideas get flowing!


  14. Steven says:

    Hey Jonathan, I absolutely love your blog but I think your scenario here is either misleading or far-fetched.

    Okay, so we have companies A, B, and C.

    Some big questions are: Why are companies B and C removing themselves from the competition? I think there are a couple possibilities:

    1) Companies B and C don’t actually think the innovation is financially worth it. In which case, we can assume the product wasn’t marketable – people don’t want it – so no harm done.

    2) Even if Companies B and C are wrong, and the market does want the innovation, then Company A will still have the foresight to produce it. (though perhaps not as quickly)

    “Your capacity to create stalls at the place at which your last competitor dropped off. You’ve beaten them, but you’ve also beaten yourself from that moment on.”

    Disagree. Companies aren’t after beating competition so much as they are after profits. If Company A remains the only company pursuing some innovation, then it’s presumed that they are doing so (not because others are) but because they think it will be profitable in the future.

    So, I guess your partly right – competition doesn’t enhance innovation – profit does.

  15. Great points, Jonathan. Wasn’t it coach John Wooden who always told his teams that competition was *never* about what anyone else was doing – only about them doing their own best?

  16. This is a great little blog post. I would like to add though that I think it’s even important not to fall into competition with yourself either.

    Creating for the joy and sake of creating is a much better place to come from than simply to constantly be one upping your self.

    It’s the difference between coming from a place of creativity and inspiration and coming from a place of “I’ll show them that i’m the best”.

    Whatever works though. It’s just great to move into that space of doing things for the joy of it being part of your mission in life and also just for the FUN OF IT rather than some feeling of obligation that you must better yourself.

  17. R.Murali says:

    You can compare the situation to a marathon run, where you are the sole contestant, the winner takes all, and yet you participate with your true self and ………. you beat the world record!