A few years back, a summer resort town made its mark and landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest ice skating path in the world. The Whiteway is a nicely manicured strip of ice, cross country ski trails, and walking path carved over the winter expanse of the water stretching over 30 kilometres. It’s looked after by a few machines and generous volunteers.
The lake is actually a part of the Columbia River. The water isn’t stagnant but steadily flowing. Ice safety is important at the best of times and more so over moving water. Our Whiteway warriors protect us by knowing the environment and testing depths at several key locations prior to putting their equipment out to prepare the ice surface. Even once prepared, the surface shifts as the season moves forward. The sophistication of how the preparers of the path pursue their efforts with safety in mind can be contrasted with how frivolously the rest of us make decisions to step onto the ice. Many of the users are weekenders or vacationers passing through. Even those of us living here full time aren’t spending much time down on the water during our days. For most, the lake was one day water and the next day ice. We aren’t paying attention to subtle shifts. If we see the Whiteway, it doesn’t mean the surface is safe. It simply means the surface was safe when the trail we see was set. The default test most of us defer to is seeing someone else out there. If we see someone skating, the surface must be safe our brains tell us. Certainly, our confidence grows where we see groups gathering on the ice. They must be interested in self-preservation. They can’t be stupid. They must know what they are doing. There’s safety in numbers. We draw strength and confidence by following the actions of others. Our brains rationalize these images and spur us to set out to skate, ski, or otherwise enjoy the Whiteway.
Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” ends with the line “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Well, it does feel pretty, pretty easy to think like others. It feels good to fit in. It’s hard to stand out. It’s always easier to conform. It’s emotionally satisfying and it’s intellectually effortless.
We have seen the ease and pace at which we work to assimilate with our group with COVID, across countries and individuals. The adoption of our new vocabulary is a great example. Words are rolling off our tongues with ease now which we had never heard of just months ago. We can see how we, collectively, embraced new words through Google Trends. For example, the idea of “flatten the curve” wasn’t something any of us had likely heard of at the beginning of March. From nowhere, this became the phrase that defined so many decisions. The search history for this phrase spiked from nothing to large numbers in mid-March.
As the lockdowns were imposed in order to pursue the objective of flattening the curve, we were introduced to the idea of a Business Continuity Plan (BCP). If we work for or with large organizations, this may have been something we’ve tangentially heard of? However, if we’re being honest, few of us had any idea what this was, as the below search results suggest.
Granted, the search numbers for business continuity plans weren’t at zero pre-COVID like those associated with flattening the curve; nonetheless, most of us weren’t reaching to pull our BCP off the shelf and dust it off, we were frantically trying to figure out what we would do that would allow us to say we’re on top of things. Our go to was to look at what others in our industry were doing. Social media became our friend. Did we scan our LinkedIn contacts for what they were up to? Did we see what other businesses were doing, even if they were in different industries? Did we cut and paste sentences we received in emails from vendors to apply to our own business?
In an article related to our rapid adoption of remote work, Rory Sutherland writes, “Behaviour is contagious because we catch it from other people. Much of what we do results from unconscious mimicry of others around us.”
Even more fascinating, Sutherland observes that just like with viruses our individual desire to conform may differ. Some individuals are more susceptible to conforming than others. It may even be that the same individual at different times in their lives are more motivated to conform than at other times just as some age groups are more vulnerable to certain viruses than others. Social Media and interconnectivity of all of us accelerates the contagion of conformity. We see a post on a social media platform and “share” it. We then act on it internally without thinking much other than if it is good enough for Bobby, it’s good enough for us. The R factor of conformity is substantially higher than that of Coronavirus. Much of what we do is following in the footsteps of others. We unconsciously copy instead of thinking independently.
Mimetic behavior in business is a common enough of an approach that a school of thought around it called Mimetic Isomorphism has been developed. A strategy of a business may be to strive to be similar to its competitors. If it’s good enough for Jane’s Widget Co, then it’s good enough for Joey’s Widget Co is the logic. If Jane is doing it and she appears to be succeeding, then we should benefit from the same approach. Just like our ice example, we’re making three kinds of assumptions.
We’re assuming Jane knows what she’s doing. But what if she doesn’t? A downside of following others is that we can fall prey to being one of the blind following the blind. What is Jane is just as blind as we are? What if she knows nothing about the state of the ice? Why would we want to follow her? Imitating is dangerous because it assumes not only that the one we’re following is doing the right thing, it assumes that the one we’re following knows where they are going. Copying may make sense where the path is clear and well worn. Where the future is uncertain, how can anyone know exactly where they are going? If there’s uncertainty, following should be even more risky. When we look around at others to guide our decisions, we’re more likely to stick with the status quo. We’re unlikely to move forward and get stuck.
We’re assuming she’s getting the results we want. We think others or other businesses have things figured out and what they are doing is worthwhile. We copy with hopes of getting what they have. Do we have any objective reason to believe these businesses are achieving positive profits?
We’re assuming we can identify what she’s doing that is delivering those results. Even if we’re confident Jane is getting the results we want, are we clear as to what specific actions are producing these results? Is it the office layout? Is it staff compensation? Is it the IT systems and infrastructure being used? Is it their communications strategy? Is it their physical location? Is it marketing? What is it that is producing the desired results? Are we sure?
If we accept these assumptions, copying doesn’t guarantee us anything. It is still a risky strategy. We imitate others individually and in business when we aren’t clear about who we are trying to be. It’s more likely that this approach reflects an absence of rigorous thought. This type of thinking reflects an absence of clarity around what your organization’s goals are or should be.
Imitating others is easy. Just like with the ice, it may give us a false sense of security. We may feel like we’re doing something constructive and prudent. However, it’s giving up control. It’s giving up responsibility. Todd Rose, in his book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness, notes that conformity is prevalent in many areas of our lives. We see it in our quest for getting our kids into fancy colleges. Rose quotes a college recruiter, “What I always tell them is that the only path to a life of excellence is by understanding and developing your own unique individuality. Instead, too many parents and kids focus on hiding their individuality instead of developing it, all because they are trying to stand out on the exact same things that everyone else is trying to stand out on.” It’s a great observation for us to consider applying to our business lives. Stan Beecham writes in, Elite Minds, “We think that by following someone else’s recipe we will reach our destination. No, you will reach their destination, which will, in turn, mean you are still lost.”
It’s said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Wouldn’t you prefer to be copied than copy? When you look at someone else’s answers on a test and try to write them down, is this a sign of strength or weakness? Is it a sign that you’re prepared and knowledgeable or that you’re ill-prepared and lazy? If we’re looking to others to determine what to do, what does it say about our capacities? Aren’t we doubting ourselves by doing this? Aren’t we devaluing ourselves? Yes, innovating is risky, scary, and messy. However, it’s more fun. It’s more rewarding. It’s a reflection of your ability and willingness to step forward and try to make a positive difference. Given a choice between doing what’s best for us or what others are doing, which option sounds more appealing?
Can you recall watching a race of some kind where the leader looks around just to be passed by a competitor. These can be dramatic lead changes regardless of the sport. The leader let their focus be pulled from what’s in their control to outside forces. The competitor digs in, takes advantage, and uses the other’s distraction to leap frog past them. The loss of focus is amplified when the former leader figures out what has just happened. We need to run our own race. This implies making decisions based on our priorities not trying to keep up with those around us. You can never over take someone when you’re following in their footsteps. By definition, you’ll always be one step behind. Bob Dylan offers us “I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”
Remember, only dead fish go with the flow. Well those, and other things we flush down the toilet. When comparing with others, conformity can be a problem. It is limiting. It keeps us focused on fitting in and not standing out. In business we should be working to differentiate ourselves. We want to be clear where we’re making decisions. Are we choosing something because we see others doing it or because we have critically worked our way through our personal circumstances and made a decision best for us? At its root, conformity reflects a limiting perspective. It’s a base level survival instinct. We seek to fit in in order to not be seen. It is a fear based approach fueled by pessimism and doubts about the future. Contrast this with what drives differentiation, a positive perspective. When we’re willing to innovate and stand out, we are expressing a belief in ourselves. We believe we have value and can make a difference. We believe our contributions will impact the future positively. We believe we can make our futures better by acting. This is an uplifting approach and one we would do well to spend our time personally and in business.
Adaptability is not imitation. It means power of resistance and assimilation. -Mahatma Gandhi-