Perceiving innovation as a fatal dilemma is a misguided approach. When introducing change, organisations invariably encounter some tensions and opposition both from employees and other stakeholders. In tackling this, it is important to remember that change is never all-encompassing. Business leaders should ask themselves “if we choose to innovate, which elements should we choose to keep the same?” The key is to handle innovation and conformity concurrently.
Furthermore, research has found that conforming with, rather than radically diverging from industry expectations can help organisations to increase their visibility and recognition.
The two types of conformity: alignment and conventionality
There are two ways your organisation can use conformity to become distinguished from competitors. Your organisation could align with market expectations, blending into the industry and decreasing the potential for unfavourable opinions in order to gain authority. In this circumstance, conformity is balanced by using innovation to stand out, this includes making small changes in an otherwise extremely conventional environment to differ yourself from the core expectations of your market.
Organisations can also conform by portraying conventional traits – over-representing a few carefully selected core aspects of their service or product in order to excel and become recognised as an industry leader. In this case, innovations can be far more unconventional and remain successful whilst being ran alongside the well-accepted and expected features.
Alignment is a great option for protection against negative judgement, whereas conventionality is ideal for organisations that hold greater visibility and recognition as a priority.
Shrink the old to make space for the new
Orchestras are a great way of illustrating the differences between alignment and conventionality. Imagine your company is an orchestra and you’re the conductor. You can either innovate or conform by misaligning or aligning your repertoire relative to the typical programming of all the other orchestras operating in your space. Orchestras choosing to conform through alignment will offer a wide repertoire that is reflective of accepted orchestra choices during that time, and become well-respected for their adherence to classic expectations.
Conventional orchestras, on the other hand, would excel in a limited number of canonical works whilst introducing lesser-heard pieces, to establish both mastery and uniqueness.
Whichever route your organisation takes, the key choice is deciding which features you draw attention away from, and which you choose to push.
Reconsidering the innovation challenge
Most companies associate innovation with distinctiveness and attempt to distance themselves from the competition without appearing too dissimilar. However such dramatic efforts are not always necessary, or beneficial. Leaders can successfully innovate by demonstrating their commitment to conventionality and downplaying their capabilities in the process of meeting identifiable expectations, whilst introducing a surprise element of unexpected diversity.
So, consider the innovation challenge again. Suddenly the debate is between what to keep alive and what to improve, seems more straightforward, doesn’t it?