Using rivalry to spur innovation


Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Bernard T. Ferrari and Jessica Goethals for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company (2010). They explain how productive rivalry stimulated artistic innovation during the Renaissance, and according to the director of General Electric’s Global Research Group, it also has helped his company develop better products and services.

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Many companies overlook the ability of productive rivalry to stimulate innovation.

That could be a loss: Not only has it been a powerful contributor to innovation in the past, but according to Mark Little, the director of General Electric’s Global Research Group, rivalry also has made a difference in his company’s efforts to develop better aircraft engines, composite materials, and power generation equipment. Taken together, the two articles that follow suggest that innovation-minded executives whose R&D groups don’t employ rivalry should be looking for more opportunities to form teams, appreciate differences in their respective approaches, and conduct market tests. Embedding rivalry in a culture where what’s celebrated most is the outcome—a better product or service—can be a powerful positive force.

The art of innovation

Companies looking for new sources of creative energy might want to look backward — to the productive rivalry that catalyzed much of the artistic innovation during the Italian Renaissance.

Business leaders tend to raise their eyebrows when they read about parallels between history and modern management—and for good reason. There are undoubtedly many people who offer better leadership lessons than Attila the Hun, and it is unclear whether Alexander the Great can tell us much about business strategy. So it’s with some trepidation that we set forth the premise of this article: that the Italian Renaissance was such an extraordinary period of creativity it can shed light on how to stimulate business innovation.

We’re quite conscious of other great eras of innovation—the 18th-century industrial revolution in Great Britain, the late-19th-century emergence of managerial capitalism in the United States, and even the present period of digital innovation. One thing that’s striking about the Renaissance, though, is that it took place on a scale not very different from that of many large, modern enterprises. Northern Italy is no larger than the state of Michigan, and at the beginning of the 15th century, the three great centers of Renaissance creativity — Rome, Florence, and Venice — had a combined population of roughly 200,000.

The ability of a population and region of this size to generate creative output—ranging from the world’s largest masonry dome to linear perspective, modern-day portrait painting, technical breakthroughs in glassblowing and bronze casting, the italic type of the Aldine Press, sfumato and chiaroscuro, and the designs in Leonardo’s sketchbooks—makes it, in our opinion, intriguing for innovation-minded leaders. What’s more, there are some uncanny parallels between what went on during the Renaissance and principles that have proven their worth in R&D organizations—such as collision between diverse experts, providing loose guidelines, and establishing stretch goals.

Less in line with mainstream R&D practices: the degree to which Renaissance creativity was built on professional rivalries — like the ones between Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian — that are commonly viewed as some of the most productive in history. It may be that by overlooking the potential of rivalry, modern R&D organizations are missing an opportunity to promote ground-breaking innovation.

What we’ve already learned from the Renaissance

Some of the practices that made the Renaissance such a creative period have already been largely integrated into today’s R&D labs.

Promoting “collision”

Consider, for example, the popular notion that constant collision between engineers, scientists, and managers will lead to better collaboration and ultimately yield the best ideas. The classic manifestation of collision is the multidisciplinary corporate R&D lab, where innovators of different stripes are gathered together in a single research facility. Among the most famous of these facilities are IBM’s Watson Research Center, HP Labs, Bell Labs, and GE’s Global Research Center. Virtual spaces, if built correctly, can also be effective for encouraging collision. Take the example of Tata’s Innoverse hub. This portal serves as a virtual innovation forum where employees from across Tata’s business units can post ideas, comment on them, and then vote on the ones they like the best. In one year it gathered 12,000 ideas, on topics ranging from R&D to management and strategy, several hundred of which have been turned into projects or implemented through operational reforms.

The concept of collision resonates with the creative energy of the Renaissance. Italy at the time was one of the most urban regions of Europe, and, although small by modern standards, the cities were densely packed centers teeming with painters, craftsmen, and sculptors. Rome, for example, attracted flocks of artists from throughout Italy seeking the patronage of the Vatican. The relatively small urban space forced them into frequent and often intense interactions with each other. Artists benefited from the diversity of the colleagues around them, and the high rates of collision with these peers allowed them to learn from each other, exchange ideas and techniques, and build off each others’ diverse accomplishments.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Bernard Ferrari is an alumnus of McKinsey’s Los Angeles and New York offices, where he was a director; he is currently the chairman of Ferrari Consultancy. Jessica Goethals is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies at New York University.

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