Conform Until You Outperform

How can we find the balance between fitting in and standing out. We’ve talked in the past about conforming in order to help the group and provide a platform from which to influence things. We’ve also talked about how it’s important to not blindly follow the crowd.  How can we reconcile these two perspectives? Are conforming and standing out even compatible objectives?

Scientists have discovered that we learn physical skills in a predictable pattern. They have conceptualized this pattern as five stages of skill development. The stages are Initiation, Acquisition, Consolidation, Refinement, and Creative Variation. We may not be familiar with the technical terms though we likely can relate to having experienced the earlier stages. When we are first introduced to a new skill, we are clumsy at best in our efforts to perform. We stumble and fumble our way through. We’re confused and don’t understand yet what to do. We have to slow things down and distill the task into its most basic elements. The initiation stage is ugly. As hard as it may be to watch others struggle to learn, it’s tougher to be the learner.

We then try to baby step our way forward in fits and starts. As we become more familiar with the task and can coordinate our mind with our bodies in terms of trying to complete it, we begin to acquire the skill. We’re now in the acquisition stage where we can perform the task. We begin to sort of look like we know what we’re doing. During the acquisition stage we can perform the task slowly in a friendly environment. We have to think our way through each step of the activity. Our performance usually lacks rhythm and precision as a result. As we continue to practice and develop our skills we enter the consolidation stage. Here we can demonstrate competence at the skill. We can do the task successfully and do so repeatedly. We’re not executing at 100% proficiency and if the environment changes, our ability to still perform well may be less. We look reasonably competent to others in the consolidation stage. This is the level most of us may stay at for many skills.

With continued training and repetitions our skill continues to improve. If we’re able to reach the refinement stage, we’re demonstrating very high levels of performance under varied conditions. The reliability with which we perform the act is solid. We are getting it right almost all the time. We are also executing well under pressure. When our skill is refined we can perform well under fatigue and duress. We’re less dependent on teachers and coaches at this level. When at refinement stage, we can make detections and corrections to performance ourselves. If we make it to this stage, we’re amongst the best. At this point, we may begin to look to further distinguish ourselves. In most arenas, to progress from initiation to refinement, we’re following a pre-determined and well established pathway based on the experience of others that have come before. We’ve conformed and followed the trail of cookie crumbs from complete novice to expert in our chosen area.

Those that are able to transcend the refinement stage enter the realm of the elite. World class performers are those that can take a skill and put their own spin on it. They enter the Creative Variation stage where skill is so high and reliability of performance is so good under any condition that the performer is able to adapt the skill to distinguish themselves even further. This is the trademark of top talent. Think of the Wayne Gretzkys and Sidney Crosbys in hockey or Tiger Woods in golf. The peak of the performance pyramid is achieved by breaking free from the path followed by others and crafting one’s own creative approach into new territory.

This framework of skill acquisition stages applies to motor skills, academics, and arts. Writers and painters, for example, are encouraged to copy the works of past greats. We’re introduced to the techniques of the greats by copying them.  David Perell notes, “Ironically, the more we imitate others, the more we discover how we’re different.” Our unique perspective only surfaces once we copy others. Perell notes how the failure to fully copy others became the kick off point for the careers of several Comedians. “There’s a long lineage of comedians who tried to copy each other, failed, and became great themselves: Johnny Carson tried to copy Jack Benny, but failed and won six Emmy awards. Then, David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson, but failed and became one of America’s greatest television hosts. Reflecting on his own influences, Conan O’Brien said: “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.’” Before we can put our own stamp on things, we need to become competent in established practices. Pablo Picasso encouraged people to “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

The stages of skill development can be applied to our business worlds. The earlier stages of Initiation, Acquisition, and Consolidation may all be met by copying the performance demonstrated by others. Georges St Pierre in The Way of the Fight reminds us, “Don’t forget, you must first master the rules before you start breaking any of them.” Initially, we’re conforming to what our peers are doing. During these stages, we’re learning by participating in industry licensing and continuing education courses. We’re studying benchmarks based on the performance of our peers. St Pierre goes on offering, “It’s never a bad idea to imitate the best of the best, or simply choose the best part of their lessons for your own benefit.” We’re striving to improve our metrics to match others in our industry. Our strategy is driven by catching up with or matching others. During these stages the power of our peers can be positive. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, writes in How to Fail at Almost Anything, “Given our human impulse to pick up the habits and energy of others, you can use that knowledge to literally program your brain the way you want. Simply find the people who most represent what you would like to become and spend as much time with them as you can without trespassing, kidnapping, or stalking. Their good habits and good energy will rub off on you.“ This is the approach we want to take as we work to keep up with those around us.

As we get close to being a leader in our industry, we’re entering the refinement stage, where we’re now focused on execution. We’re seeking efficiencies and driving business process reforms. This is the start of where we can seek to differentiate ourselves. Our efforts transition from being led by what others have done and become about how we can evolve into new territory. To truly separate ourselves from the crowd, we strive for the Creative Variation stage.

Basically, until you are amongst the top tier, you’re better off trying to conform and mimic the actions of your peers. Once you have this figured out, then strive to separate and aim for excellence. In short, conform until you can outperform. Should you reach the Creative Variation stage, your progress now depends on W2D WOW, Willing to do what others won’t. It’s fine to use the best practices developed by others in your craft as you’re finding your way. As you progress, the peers to which you compare yourself to should rise as well. It’s ok to strive towards a comparison of your organization with the best in your profession. In the foreword of the book, Patterns of Software written by Richard Gabriel, Architect Christopher Alexander writes, “In my life as an architect, I find that the single thing which inhibits young professionals, new students most severely, is their acceptance of standards that are too low. If I ask a student whether her design is as good as Chartres, she often smiles tolerantly at me as if to say, “Of course not, that isn’t what I am trying to do. … I could never do that.” Then, I express my disagreement, and tell her: “That standard must be our standard. If you are going to be a builder, no other standard is worthwhile. That is what I expect of myself in my own buildings, and it is what I expect of my students.” Gradually, I show the students that they have a right to ask this of themselves, and must ask this of themselves. Once that level of standard is in their minds, they will be able to figure out, for themselves, how to do better, how to make something that is as profound as that.  Two things emanate from this changed standard. First, the work becomes more fun. It is deeper, it never gets tiresome or boring, because one can never really attain this standard. One’s work becomes a lifelong work, and one keeps trying and trying. So it becomes very fulfilling, to live in the light of a goal like this. But secondly, it does change what people are trying to do. It takes away from them the everyday, lower-level aspiration that is purely technical in nature, (and which we have come to accept) and replaces it with something deep, which will make a real difference to all of us that inhabit the earth.”

In his book, 100 Things Successful People Do, Nigel Cumberland writes, “Unless you think that the majority of people are living successful lives, chances are that at some point you will have to act differently from those around you. Success can take many forms and it is often about standing out from the crowd or being above average, spotting when the crowd moves one way and making sure that you move the other.” Others offer us much guidance. We can learn from the experience of others. However, success lies in stepping outside the confines of conformity crafting your own unique approach. Conform until you outperform.