March 28, 2012

Conformity: Boo! Hiss!

Actually, For the most part, the tendency to conform is not a bad thing. Conformity is necessary to create a stable society, where people accept rules and moral codes. It is also based in the same psychological drives that allow us to develop deeper friendly and romantic relationships. It gives wide dispersion to ‘good enough’ solutions, which beats the heck out of people randomly finding their own way to treat brain tumors or broken bones.

When looking at innovation, however, the push is away from ‘good enough’ solutions. In this context, “conformity” is not just a dirty word, it’s a bad idea. Conformity in companies can trip up front-runners, while expected conformity in consumer targets can keep the best of products from making it off the ground.  Organizations need to separate the two approaches to make hay while the sun shines.

Conforming to Success

I remember being awestruck when my mother first got a Palm Pilot. As a tech geek, she loved the capabilities it presented, with a stylus pad to write on and multiple menus that could sort her contacts, her to-dos, and even a small selection of games. At the time, I was mostly interested in the games and their state of readiness in my mother’s purse. At its outset, the Palm Pilot was innovation, a solution to issues we hadn’t known were really bothering us, in a new format that stepped far away from the ideas we had conformed to.

Simplicity was key in the initial innovative push on the Palm Pilot: Give consumers a simple way to access all their necessary data, without being overwhelming. It was successful, it worked (unlike most other PDAs on the market), and it sold nearly 1,000,000 units in its first year. Simplicity worked well to create success for Palm Pilot, and the company went forward, conforming to their own success mechanisms.

Unfortunately, what makes the first offering so successful is not necessarily what will keep it moving forward. As consumers became more comfortable with technology, and new competitors began to enter the field, Palm Pilots continued to conform to their own successful offering: simplicity. This conformity put them behind the new players in the market as new features became more and more popular, and eventually the norm.

Sticking to their guns (or rather, conforming to their success) eventually put Palm Pilots far behind the new entrants to the category. While the brand produced a couple of OK smartphones around 2007, it has not redeemed it status as the industry go-to and is unlikely to catch up with current leaders like the iPhone and Android.

Conforming to the Industry

Anyone who has danced at a wedding is familiar with the crowd favorites, including the Cha-Cha Slide, the Cupid Shuffle, and (of course) the Hustle. Have you ever missed a step or turn in one of them? (Yes, you have. We all have.)

You freeze…

Then you fight off the wave of embarrassment that came with stepping out of line, literally. But what if that misstep had been about to be the greatest dance move you ever made? I think we can all agree that even accidental breakdancing would be better dancing than the Hustle.

In the same way, businesses in their respective industries do not usually feel comfortable stepping out of line. When the automotive industry slides to the right, each respective brand wants to be the second or third to slide to the right. When detergent did ‘five hops this time’ into pre-measured sachets, Tide, Dawn, and respective store brands hopped along.

It’s the companies that are breakdancing that make the impression on the industry. When the rest of the airline industry was doing the “premium prices for a halfway-decent service” shakedown, Southwest Airlines came in with innovative ideas for how to give the best possible experience while keeping prices lower than any other in the industry. PeaPod groceries gave us a new twist on the traditional view of stores selling products, where the effort is solely on the part of the customers. By presenting it as a service, they pull in customers that are guaranteed to continue shopping through them without an elaborate loyalty program. And by having it work as an online program, tracking customer shopping trends is an automatic function, again saving them money and giving better results.

Conforming to Consumer Expectations

A third major conformity that can delay innovation in the marketplace comes from companies giving the consumers only what they seem to be asking for. In the words of Henry Ford, before cars “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It is worthwhile for companies to listen to their customer base. It is a trap, however,  for companies to fall into the belief that customers will always want the same thing from a product, and stay loyal to those desires. In truth, across the board many of us settle for “good enough” solutions to problems or needs in our lives because we have never been given the option for the best possible solution. When a better solution comes along, however, we have been proven to follow the parabolic curve of adoption. What companies do not need to do is try to fit their ideas to match the consumers in the middle of the curve.

That conformity puts a company in the game already at a disadvantage. Not only will the customers look for the next solution but conforming to the present customer demands means you are likely not looking for the innovative solutions to your own offering. Looking at the Innovation Excellence diagram below, a company trying to give customers the best Job 1 performance is not picking up on Jobs 2 & 3 as they emerge. (Graph sampled from Innovation Excellence post “It’s the Jobs to be Done, Stupid!”)

Yes, you need to listen to the customers, especially in this age of social media and crowd-sourcing.  However you need to look beyond them as well into fringe scanning.   You can find ideas and opportunities you’d never considered.  Do not depend on your customer input to provide the next innovative move. Truly attention-grabbing, revolutionary companies are the ones that present ideas expecting the reaction of “I never would have thought of that.” If you don’t believe me, before Starbucks, I expect most consumers would have wanted a faster, cheaper cup of coffee…

Innovation barriers are plentiful. But just keeping these three forms of conformity in mind can help. Use them as a lens to look at how you and your company present offerings, and see how many opportunities you may be overlooking. That’s a funny thing about staying in line, well behaved people (and companies) rarely make history.

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