Sunday, May 15, 2011

Does competition encourage creativity? Sometimes...

This is just a little statement, not some heavily researched presentation. The thing with competition is that in certain circumstances it can discourage innovation and instead reward conformity to whatever is prevailing at the time. Look at it this way: if you have a situation where there's both cut throat competition and very high stakes involved, there's a disincentive to do something out of the range of the established norm because the further out you go the riskier success is. If a person's job is on the line and they have to choose between modifying a plan that someone else has come up with slightly and passing it off, or coming up with something new that may work really well but has a higher degree of risk through being less tried, the incentive is to go with what's worked in the past. If someone's job is on the line and there are lots and lots of people competing, the pressure to conform and to only modify what has come before increases even more, because your chances of winning have been reduced purely because of the larger number of people involved. In both cases, competition acts to inhibit people from putting forward new and creative ideas that could potentially yield good results.

If the consequences aren't severe, if winning and losing doesn't mean either keeping your job or losing it with little hope of getting another one, for instance, people are freer to put forward more interesting ideas because the consequences of taking the risk with something less tried are less harsh, possibly getting to a threshold where the risk/benefit tradeoff is deemed to be worth it.

There's also the issue of organizational conservatism if a person comes up with ideas that are interesting, but that implicitly threaten the status of people who have profited from putting forward the old ideas, something that can lead to people marshaling their forces to defeat something not because their side is necessarily right but because they'll lose out if the flaws in their opinions, ways of doing things, plans, come to light. That sort of resistance isn't honest competition because it assumes a power base that causes the different participants to not have an equal chance of winning. Choosing the familiar not because it's right but because it's familiar, circling ones wagons against what are considered to be outside threats, is nothing more than resorting to blind adherence to what's been done in the past as a guide to what to do in the future. It's a way to get out of having to justify your plans and opinions.

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