Conformity As An Inhibitor To Strategy

Early in life, we are all made acutely aware of the power of peer pressure. Most of us probably attribute it to a deep need for belonging. But what if that deep sense of belonging is less about social acceptance and more about how we are psychologically wired? In fact, the pursuit of conformity goes beyond mere social dynamics; it is rooted in how our cognitive selves.

While this plays out in very obvious ways for individuals, the dynamics actually hold true for organizations. And for companies, the stakes might be even higher.

A guy named Solomon

In the 1950s, an American psychologist named Solomon Asch ran through a series of experiments to test the effects of conformity on individuals. His studies have been published several times, but one test in particular gives a fascinating look into how we operate.

Asch took a number of participants and asked them very simple cognitive questions. To conduct the study, Asch brought participants into a room that had seven other people. However, these seven people were actually part of the study. The eight individuals were shown a card with a line on it, followed by a card with three lines on it. The participants were asked to say out loud which of the lines was the same length as the first one. The control group was told to unanimously declare the wrong answer. Asch wanted to determine if this impacted how the participants responded.


When answering without other inputs, participant error rates were below 1%. When the control group was used, more than 75% of participants answered at least one of the questions wrong. That is the power of conformity. We will make bad decisions on relatively easy problems when forced to deal with conformity.

Applying conformity to technology

Now consider the technology space. In virtually every market, there are a number of companies competing for share. These companies have to identify the problem space and concoct a solution. And in fact, in constructing a market offering, we are all cognizant of the need for differentiation. Logic would dictate that we would create products that are all similar in outcome but sufficiently different in how that outcome is achieved.

But is that what really happens?

At a sufficiently low level, it is true that products all appear somewhat unique when compared to their competition. It could be that the physical form is different, or maybe there are some capabilities or scale that exist on one product but not another. But when you examine large technology spaces, many products and services appear more similar than they do different.

Why the similarity?

In examining similarities, there are probably two dominant explanations. First, if a problem requires a very specific solution, then all versions of that solution will conform to a basic set of requirements. This is particularly true where different solutions have to interoperate, which fixes the boundaries of the solution to well-defined interfaces. The whole of IT is a great example of this dynamic. Networking vendors tend to produce very similar-looking solutions largely because they built using common building blocks and ultimately have to all work together.

Second, if a leader has established a viable model, then followers will frequently start with that rough product offering and then incrementally differentiate from there. That Uber and Lyft appear to be very similar is not surprising given Uber’s success at disrupting the transportation (or delivery, depending on where you see them going) market.

Strategic implications of psychology

But before any of us gets too hung up justifying why things have to be (or maybe ought to be) similar, consider the psychology. As Asch demonstrated, there is a strong predilection towards conformity in how we are made up. When faced with unity from outside, we struggle to justify our own ideas, even if we believe them to be correct.

In companies, this is partly why decision making frequently borders on the absurd. People will tend to wait until the majority takes a position, and then they will conform. Oddly enough, this means that people who want to shape the vote a particular direction are actually better off acting early. Swinging an early vote in your direction will pull people off of the fence, creating stronger pull for those who have not yet decided.

As you move out from point decisions to strategy, the implications get more profound. If people require validation of their ideas to move forward confidently, it is a precious few who are ever able to pursue a strategically different path. The actions of competitors (particularly when they are all grouped around a single way of thinking) will dampen the enthusiasm to pursue a new direction. In fact, if taken to the extreme, it can make it nearly impossible to rally support for novel approaches to age-old problems.

Do you ever wonder why large companies have to spin projects out to get them done? It’s not that people are incapable of executing, and it certainly isn’t that large companies are too bureaucratic to be innovative. It’s that breaking free from conformity is extremely difficult. If you need any proof, have a look at virtually any roadmap and notice how similar it is to competitive roadmaps.

The bottom line

Our hard-wired need to conform flies against our desires to be different an innovative. As you consider strategy, you should make sure that you are not subconsciously shackling your ideas to the rest of the industry. But the good news is that because conformity is so popular, the few that are able to get past it end up in a remarkably powerful position.

[Today’s fun fact: Hawaii is moving towards Japan at a rate of about 4 inches per year. Star-crossed lovers simply cannot be kept apart.]