Conformity kills innovation: embrace your company’s black sheep

Mission: turn the U.S. Navy, an organization steeped in rules, hierarchy and conformity, into a hotbed for innovation.

To some, it might sound like a mission impossible.

But that’s just what a young naval officer, Ben Kohlmann, managed to do.

Kohlmann, who was known for questioning long-standing military practices, took the initiative to assemble a group of fellow naval “rabble-rousers” and created the Navy’s first rapid innovation cell for idea generation.

As Adam Grant writes for Harvard Business Review, Kohlmann sparked an organization-wide culture shift. By fostering group discussions and organizing visits to groundbreaking hubs like Google headquarters, Kohlmann helped to usher in a new, nonconformist way of thinking.

The result was a wave of Navy innovations, like the first robotic fish for stealthy underwater missions.

Breaking free from conformity isn’t easy. Even in the startup world, it takes courage. But, as I’ll explain, being a black sheep can lay the groundwork for innovation.

I love this sentiment from Dr. KH Kim, professor of creativity and innovation at the College of William & Mary:

“With conventional thinking, an EXPERT can only reinvent the wheel. By thinking a different way, an INNOVATOR can combine the wheel with something else, or extend the wheel or its use.”

At my company, JotForm, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We provide customers with online forms to (hopefully) make their lives easier. But even with a service so seemingly straightforward, continual innovation is vital.

To stay competitive, we’re always looking for ways to make our products even more useful for customers — and creating a culture of nonconformity is a big part of that mission.

That’s why I’m sharing some tips on how to foster a nonconformist culture. But first, a quick exploration of how conformity became the modern-day default.

Where did the herd mentality come from?

As it turns out, many employees believe, mistakenly or not, that their companies value conformity.

In a survey of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino found that nearly half the respondents said they worked in organizations where they regularly felt the need to conform. More than half said that people in their organizations did not question the status quo.

As humans, we’re naturally vulnerable to social pressures. You might remember when I wrote about the seminal Asch experiment, in which about one third (32%) of the participants were willing to conform with the majority choice — even when it was clearly incorrect.

To cite a real-world example, Volkswagen came under fire in 2015 for installing software in diesel vehicles to manipulate emissions tests and illegally sidestep pollution standards. Though a VW representative claimed that only a couple of engineers were aware of the shady software, many were skeptical.

At the time, Volkswagen employed around 583,000 people. None of them were willing to question the company’s illegal practices. Instead, they followed the majority.

So, if we believe that our company values conformity, and we don’t see any of our colleagues challenging norms, the chance of going against the herd — questioning how something is done or proposing a new idea — is minimal.

Gino also cites the “status quo bias,” which is our tendency to stick with familiar actions and thought patterns. Apparently, people naturally give more weight to the potential losses of status quo deviations than the potential gains.

Rather than going out on a limb — such as suggesting a new client intake system during a meeting with your boss — you stay quiet, regardless of the potential value of your idea.

As a result, your company sticks to the same formula, and competitors slowly edge you out: a phenomenon we witnessed in the last couple decades with companies like Borders, BlackBerry, Polaroid, and MySpace.

Why it’s worth overcoming our conformist nature

What do Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei, and Nikola Tesla have in common? They were all innovators and notable nonconformists. They weren’t afraid to question the status quo in order to advance their ideas — even if, as in the case of Galileo, it led to an untimely end.

Progress depends on the Galileos of the world. Being a nonconformist also benefits the individual, by increasing confidence, engagement, creativity, and performance.

In one of several field studies, Francesca Gino and her researchers instructed one group of employees to behave in a nonconforming way (by voicing disagreement and expressing what they felt) and another to behave in a conforming way. They asked a third group to act as they usually would.

After three weeks, the first group said they felt more confident and engaged. They also displayed higher levels of creativity and were rated higher by supervisors on performance and innovativeness.

It seems that once people feel comfortable speaking up, even if it means going against the grain, they gain momentum. And it makes sense: how many meetings have you held back in? How did you feel afterward? Compare that with a discussion in which you’re outspoken or even playing the role of devil’s advocate. There’s no doubt, it’s energizing.

Customers prefer nonconformity, too. While studying a company that was considering dozens of new product ideas, researchers found that customers preferred the most creative ideas — not the ideas that company employees thought would be most feasible or profitable.

As any entrepreneur will tell you, it’s crucial to listen to what customers want — even if that means paying less heed to more practical considerations.

How do I build a nonconformist culture?

Start by encouraging employees to be their authentic selves — whatever that means to them.

As leaders, we should tell employees what to do, then step out of the way and let them figure out how to do it. Give them the opportunity to be resourceful and let their innate qualities shine through.

Southwest Airlines’ executive vice president Colleen Barrett exemplified this hands-off approach. Under Barrett’s leadership, Southwest flight attendants were encouraged to deliver safety instructions in their own style and with humor, a philosophy that helped make Southwest a top performer in terms of passenger volume, profitability, customer satisfaction, and turnover.

Just check out these happy passengers during the typically yawn-inducing safety demonstration.

Encouraging employees to question the status quo is another way to promote nonconformity. Rather than accept things as they are, employees should constantly consider how things could be.

Wharton professor Adam Grant calls this “vuja de” — when we enter a familiar situation but see it in a new way.

“You’re standing in line waiting for a taxi and you see these cars passing by, which all have empty seats in them,” he explains. “You’ve seen them a thousand times before you start to say ‘why can’t I have one of those seats?’ And Uber is created.”

Grant also recommends that managers solicit ideas from employees individually, rather than holding brainstorms. In group situations, the loudest voices tend to dominate, and less outspoken team members often hold back or conform.

Instead, managers can follow the lead of industry-disrupting eyewear company Warby Parker, which asks employees to submit a weekly “innovation idea” to their managers.

Writes Warby Parker CEO Neil Blumenthal:

“Although it could sound like a startup cliché, the habit of suggesting a weekly idea really does get people in the habit of dreaming up cool concepts. After all, creativity begets creativity.”

Or, try the approach of HP Norway managing director Anita Krohn Traaseth, who launched a “speed-date the boss” program.

During five minutes of consecutive, one-on-one facetime, Traaseth asked employees: Where do you think we should change, and what should we keep focusing on? This practice led to an outpouring of smart, employee-generated ideas.

Finally, we can foster out-of-the-box thinking by consistently providing employees with challenging experiences. This means introducing a variety of tasks and novelty into everyday work life — a technique which literally primes our brain for innovation.

It’s common knowledge that employees who aren’t challenged eventually lose motivation. But research shows that trying new tasks triggers the release of dopamine — the chemical that motivates us and inspires fresh thinking.

And if a novel situation doesn’t present itself naturally, you can still apply constraints to spark creativity.

At JotForm, for example, sometimes we’ll give our designers specific size requirements, or limit them to 10 elements on a screen. By imposing these constraints, albeit imaginary barriers, our designers work even harder to find creative solutions.

Embrace your company’s black sheep

Every so often, it’s important to take a step back and do a pulse check on your company culture.

If your organization already has Ben Kohlmanns — rabble-rousers who question tradition and refuse to settle for the status quo — you’re doing something right. Those employees should be valued and encouraged. But if your teams tend to follow the majority (or the outspoken minority), it’s worth figuring out how to shift toward more nonconformist thinking.

Remember: innovation thrives where individuality, not conformity, is the norm.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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