Puttnam’s Law

Conformity Now!

The other day I wrote conforming our way to greatness? about how it is impossible to stand out while blending in. You don’t need to go read the whole post (though I’d be happy if you did), but the conclusion was:

There is a choice to be made every with every decision and every action. Do you choose greatness or do you choose mediocrity? It sounds like an easy choice, but it really isn’t. Mediocrity comes with a map and endorsements and approval. Greatness comes with the big risks of never having a map, of letting go of the known, and with disapproval and criticism. If it works you’ll be attacked and if it doesn’t you’ll be ridiculed for trying. Yet…

If you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you will never get better results than everyone else.

This fear us humans have is a noose on innovation and progress. It is barely discussed, yet I believe it’s one of the single biggest constraints facing business today. There is such tremendous pressure to not stand out, to not do different, to reinforce the norm as Right that this is an extraordinarily difficult choice to make and stick with. We use terms like “best practices” and “state of the art” to make it sound like we are blazing trails through the wilderness. (And if we really want to feel all George Jetson futuristic we’ll create “state of the art best practices”.)

Don’t believe the hype. “Best practices” and “state of the art” are synonymous with the “status quo,” “the norm,” and “the way we all do it.” Innovation, diversity of thought, and progress can’t happen when we stick to the “industry standard.” We simultaneously choke, bind, and hobble our individual, group, and organization’s potential while convincing ourselves how progressive we’re being.

Puttnam’s Law sums it up best: It is more acceptable to fail in conventional ways than in unconventional ways. The reward for succeeding in unconventional ways is less than the risk of failing in unconventional ways. In short, you can screw up with impunity so long as you screw up like everybody else.

Study, think about, maybe even memorize that. Puttnam’s Law is in effect any time two or more people get together. It’s in every team, organization, society, and country; every activity, sport, profession, and trade. And it’s holding us back.

Why do we conform? Simple. Reread the second sentence of Puttnam’s Law: “The reward for succeeding in unconventional ways is less than the risk of failing in unconventional ways.” Failing (or just being mediocre) like everyone else carries much less social risk than failing OR succeeding on your own path.

Failing together the way we’ve always done it is somehow safer and more comforting that succeeding in new ways. Yet, despite the reassuring solidarity, we’ve still failed.

What thinks you?