Understanding the notion of conformity is important, especially when we talk about culture and how we tend to think.
Can we actually be paralyzed by conformity? To Margaret Wheatley, there’s no beating around the bush. She says we are. She writes:
“We have terrorized ourselves by the thought of evolution, driving ourselves into positions of paralyzing conformity, for fear of getting things wrong ..” then adds ..
“.. fear is the darkest of Darwinian shadows.” – M. Wheatley in A Simpler Way (1999)
Wheatley likes to cut to the chase.
Can we find examples to support her claim? I think they are plentiful, and they are all around us. Consider:
- a consumer culture that thrives on conformist based purchasing (think: brands, trends, styles)
- social circles that favor (or outright demand) fitting in
- work environments that favor the status quo, and resist the challenger
- organizations that cling to structure/hierarchy, vs. more dynamic/collaborative modes of interaction
- a Western busiess culture modeled upon repeatable, uniform, mechanistic models of efficiency
Much has been written (by me and others; see also: C.Christensen, K.Robinson), on the downside of our factory-driven paradigms. In the interest of precision in profitable manufacturing and creating the ability to scale, we are driven to Darwinesque conformity in our thinking.
Can we break the cycle?
I say yes. If we can find ways to fundamentally change our mindset.
I’m intrigued that in the very same book, Wheatley goes on to describe patterns and rules in nature that seek to discover what works. Conformity, perhaps, is not all bad, if you’re a tree seeking a greater share of critical sunlight, or vying to expand your rainfall catching potential. Need more light and water? Grow a little taller. Make some more leaves.
A better, more useful frame might be: conform if it’s working, adapt if it’s not.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to a balancing act. So often, we don’t see a choice. Conformity of purpose is important where precision, quality and scale are required. But when we limit our exploration of new ideas or way of doing things, we cut off our chance to learn, to innovate, and to grow.
Conformity can be a trap. And it can also be our saving grace when we frame it as a repeatable pattern, a platform for new possibilities.
The #cdna community hosts a periodic exploration of social learning, a deep dive into the factors that help us learn together. We seek to identify enablers that help us discover, and the barriers that tend to keep us from learning. At our next discussion, let’s tee up these questions on conformity in the context of culture:
- Q1. What reactions or thoughts does mention of comformity tend to trigger?
- Q2. Can we advance metaphors for conformity that focus on upside (tree leaves) and caution of the downside (factory model)?
- Q3. If you agree with Wheatley on the dark side of Darwin, why does conformist thinking carry a special risk?
- Q4. Can we influence the cultural implications that conformity introduces? How?
I can help on that last one with a hint: if you’re a Peter Block fan, you’ll know the answer to “How?” is almost always “Yes!” Our next #cdna chat is slated for Monday March 10th at 8pm ET.
Bring your ideas and an open mind. We hope to see you there.
Chris Jones (aka @sourcepov)