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The Holy War (And Why You Should Start One)

September 20, 2013

There’s a little football game going to be played here in Utah tomorrow. The teams are not in the same conference. They won’t play each other again until 2016, but for both schools, it’s probably the most important game of the year. It will pit my alma mater, the Brigham Young University cougars against their rivals, the Utes of University of Utah. It’s referred to as The Holy War, although it’s neither a war nor particularly holy.

I was introduced to The Holy War on November 18, 1989 when my new bride and I sat in Cougar stadium in Provo and watched BYU crush Utah, 70-31. It’s not that BYU was trying to run up the score. Utah just wasn’t very good. I think BYU suited up their cheerleaders to play in the fourth quarter.

Rivalries are great in sports. They drive interest. They get the fans talking and involved.

Rivalries are terrible in families. I work very hard to keep my kids from feeling like they have to compete with each other. We do all that new age parenting stuff like validating feelings, identifying unique and special traits about each child. (It really is valuable and important.)

So, what about in business? Are rivalries between departments more like sports or more like families? Are rivalries good? Useful? Harmful?

Rivalries can be a huge asset in business. They accomplish three important objectives.


Team Unity
Nothing pulls your team together like a common opponent. Hopefully the team hasn’t decided that as the manager, you are that common enemy. But, just as a sports team pulls together when they are facing a rival, a “rival” can help your team pull together. What you are really doing by finding a rival is that you are focusing your team on a common goal. The rival team is just a surrogate for what you actually are trying to accomplish. You will know that the team is “getting” it when they start to look at how to help each other improve. In one team I was a leader of, we got text alerts when a system failed. There was one guy on call. Because our team was pulling for each other, when an alert went out, the rest of the team would contact the on-call engineer if they didn’t see a timely response posted. They realized that what affected one of them really impacted all of them. It was a really strong team in that respect.

Improved Performance
And that brings up the second objective of picking a rival. You will see improved performance. One of the management mantras is “That which gets measured, improves.” In this case it’s true. When I managed an email team, we had two important metrics that management watched closely: availability and priority outages. We started competing with the Server team on availabiltity. Now, it was no longer good enough to achieve our stated availability goal of 99.5% (Yes, my official baseline was “two nines.”) Now, the team wanted to exceed whatever availability the server team achieved.

Cross Team Unity
And that’s the third item that finding a rivalry does for you. It forces you to work closer with another team. It might appear counterproductive to say that competing with another team will draw the two teams together. BYU and Utah have played each other 94 times and Utah leads the series 56–34–4. But, playing each other for over a hundred years hasn’t drawn the schools closer together. They two teams hate each other as much as ever. So why should a rivalry pull the server team and the Exchange Server team closer together? Because unlike sports, in business you can BOTH win. We wanted to have the higher availability percentage, but we wanted the server team to also meet their stated goal. . .we just didn’t want them to beat us. It also forced us to communicate with them on a semi-regular basis. Communication strengthens relationships.

You typically have to have something you are competing for. I like to design some useless but symbolic “trophy.” The team who hold the trophy gets bragging rights.


So, rivalries are a good thing. . .except when they aren’t.

Down Side
A rivalry between two teams can totally screw up your organization, if not done well. As a manager you need to keep in mind the ultimate goal. It’s not the silly trophy, although you really want to win it. The ultimate goal is to make the system stronger. I’ve seen teams take rivalries too far. They actively sabotage their rivals. So, rather than help their team, they focus on hurting the other team. That’s not going to be productive long term.

Also, you shouldn’t roll everything about your team into the rivalry. In other words, don’t make your entire team’s tasks dependent on rivalry tasks. You need to keep the normal work not only going forward, but thriving as well.

In the role I mentioned above where we challenged the server team, we started that rivalry with both teams distrusting each other. John, the Server Team Manager and I spent several meetings trying to get to know each other and understand each other’s organizations. Ultimately the two teams became two of the strongest and closest teams in our entire portfolio.

On Saturday here in Utah two schools will meet who not only have one of the longest rivalries in college sports but are also phyically closer than any other rival schools in the nation. BYU is in Provo, and The University of Utah is 40 miles away in Salt Lake City.


So, don’t be afraid of rivalries, but manage them carefully and make sure you are using them to motivate your team and push for greater accountability and performance, and not simply as another way of bashing a team that you already have conflicts with.

Rodney M Bliss attended BYU and is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children, one of whom attended the University of Utah, one of whom attends Utah State and the others who haven’t chosen sides yet.

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From → Team Building

  1. Toad permalink

    That makes a lot of sense.
    So- What about the Mac VS. PC holy war?

    • The Mac/PC war, like Coke/Pepsi or Ford/Chevy was brilliant marketing. I once taught a session of a college class in computers at BYU. I asked the class “How many think Microsoft is an evil company?” Lots of hands went up. Then I asked “How many think General Foods is an evil company company?” People looked at me all confused. “How could General Foods be evil or not evil?”

      And that’s the point. The computer market created their own rivalries to drive cohesion among the faithful, greater innovation as each side tried to one up the other. And the surprising thing is that it ALSO drove closer relations between the two companies. Microsoft LOVED to be #1, but they knew they needed a strong #2 in order to make it work. At one point, before the iPod, Apple was going broke. The company was very close to closing its doors. Microsoft “invested” $100M to keep them going. Really Bill Gates gave Steve Jobs a hundred million to keep his company.

      The most popular application on The Mac was Microsoft Office.

      So, I think the Mac/PC wars were brilliant, and I wish I’d thought if that example when I was writing. They fit the pattern I described perfectly.

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