or compete? Thats a core strategic question for organizations seeking
margins and market share. When are they better off energetically
competing against their rivals? When are they wisest to collaborate and
cooperate? That strategic question is even more important for the
internal IT marketplace. CIOs have to determine what will better drive
desirable results: more collaboration within their IT shops or
encouraging smarter competition. The correct answer, of course, is
both. Good luck.
Unfortunately, most CIOs focus
far less on the productive role of competition versus collaboration
than on the design and deployment of productive process. Our legitimate
concerns about process undermine rigorous thought and action around
when getting people to compete and getting them to collaborate makes
the most sense. Too much of either can kill: As Paracelsus, the 16th
century Swiss alchemist keenly observed, The dose makes the poison.
Whats the right dosage? Whats the right mix?
issues snapped to mind at this magazines CIO 100 Symposium in San
Diego, during a session on innovation that I participated in with
Capital One CIO Gregor Bailar and others. Bailar, inspired by an
internal competition run by CBS Marketwatch to encourage creative
mash-ups, imported the idea to his IT shop. The first time he ran the
competition, he got far fewer entries than expected.
its not that Bailar doesnt encourage or support Web 2.0oriented
innovation. Capital One is as innovative a shop as youll find. The
organizational reality is that sometimes internal competitions
productively tap an existing well of frustration and perceived
opportunity. But if the target audience hasnt yet perceived the
potential opportunity, they may treat such competitions as just
This is a powerful and
(relatively) innovative diagnostic. Run an internal competition around
mash-ups, interfaces, tech support or some other IT-empowered business
issue and see what kind of response you get. The size of the prize and
quality of recognition have to make sense, but youll be amazed at what
doesand doesntpop up. I was.
Indeed, youll find
the conversation surrounding prize size, recognition and rewards speaks
volumes about your shops competition culture. Will a token dinner for
two and an enterprise attaboy from the CIO motivate people? Or do you
need cold, hard cash? Are you looking for breakthrough ideas from a
brilliant programmer? Or would you rather have entries from programming
pairs or trios? Do you want lots of entries? Or do you want the right
These arent rhetorical questions. The way you design a
competitionparticularly its rewardsreveals your own values as a
leader. To the extent you recognize, reward and celebrate individual
achievement, you may tacitly discourage collaboration. To the extent
you pit teams against one another to come up with solutions, you
discourage sharing and cooperation. And if competition in any form is
seen as irrelevant to innovation, creativity and productivity, youre
running an IT shop thats ignoring one of the greatest spurs to
ingenuity known to history.
CIOs worldwide are
impaled on the schizophrenic horns of a leadership dilemma. IT
organizations desperately need the efficiencies and innovations that
internal competition can surface. Yet they have to promote greater
knowledge sharing and collaboration to encourage greater efficiencies
in innovation communication and alignment. So which is the better
investment: rivalry or cooperation?
Even though Ive
written books about collaboration, my moneys on rivalry as the medium
and method that deserves greater investment and ingenuity from CIOs.
While competition shouldnt be a dominant driver of your internal IT
culture, it needs to be more than a spice: It has to be an essential
ingredient. Yes, competition for the sake of competition is dumbbut so
is collaboration for the sake of collaboration. You need to begin by
learning how your existing IT culture defines the contours of its
collaboration versus cooperation landscape.
the answers arent easy, the path to finding them is. Look at the three
most common success stories your organization tells when its
reviewing past accomplishments. Then review the three most common
abysmal failure tales your people tell. Heres the trick: Dont look
for the heroes, villains, best practices or dumbest decisions. Instead,
examine the competitive versus collaborative dynamics of each project.
What role did competition and rivalry play in the successes and the
failures? How did cooperation and sharing add value or induce paralysis?
guaranteed to discover your IT shops comfort zones around rivalry and
cooperation. Sometimes, feeling uncomfortable about competition is
wonderful; other times, it signals the wrong kind of fear. Sometimes,
collaborative, cooperative relationships indicate a well-run
organization; then again, they can signal self-indulgent complacency.
You need to know this.
At one global professional
services firm, the CIO realized that office rivalry between regions had
passed the point of diminishing returns. There was literally no
incentive for offices to share best practicesor any meaningful
informationat all. Not a single success story had anything to do with
cross-office collaboration. In fact, because the offices were actually
ranked against one another, collaboration was effectively discouraged.
Effecting a change in incentives and culture proved easy. An outside
the straightforward remedy
of making 20 percent of the regional CIOs bonus contingent upon
demonstrable knowledge sharing and cost-savings between the units. The
units were also ranked on how collaborative they were.
contrast, another professional services firm IT shop was so collegial
and collaborative that it passive-aggressively killed efforts to
introduce IT innovations that would upset the existing comity. The IT
people did a better job of collaborating with each other than with
their internal clients. The clients came second. The result? The
consultants bypassed IT and bootlegged budgeted IT innovations on their
own. The CIO was ultimately asked to leave, and a non-IT partner was
put in charge. A few of the surviving IT employees are unhappier, but
the bulk of their internal clients are not. Internal competition
energized both IT and its users.
Leadership means defining and
designing the kind of marketplace thats best for your IT shop and
enterprise. And it means having the courage to compete and collaborate
and inspiring your people to do the same.
Schrage is codirector of the MIT Media Labs eMarkets Initiative. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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