conforming our way to greatness?

There is tremendous pressure to fit into the known. We warn our kids about peer pressure and the dangers of going along with the crowd just to fit in, but succumb to it in business.

“Conformity Now!” might well be the battle cry of Wall Street and the business world. And, just like in any group, the ones who really seem to make a difference are the outliers. We see it everywhere. The successful actor who chooses to live on a ranch in Wyoming instead of playing the Hollywood games. The motocross hero who lives far away from the epicenter of the industry so he can focus on championships instead of living the lifestyle. The doctor whose new techniques are ridiculed even though there is strong evidence they work and save lives.

We respect them for being different, are thrilled they are getting better results, and then criticise them for being different, and insist they conform to “best practices” – the very practices they achieved better results by avoiding:

Southwest Airlines created a huge advantage by investing in their people and culture yet it’s not unheard of for investors to suggest they “create more shareholder value” by reducing the investment in their people and culture. Huh?

Apple has long targeted a niche market with its elegant, powerful, and expensive computers. They can be credited with creating the smartphone industry and are now seen as one of the world’s top companies. Yet, there are Wall Street analysts suggesting that what Apple really needs to do to be successful is to change the entire business model and start catering to the cheap, low-end market. What?

There are a growing number of businesses who are turning the organizational structure on its ear and are getting great results. W.L. Gore, Valve, and Semco all come to mind. The organizations profiled in Jim Collin’s classic book Good to Great seemed to consistently go their own way and pay little heed to doing what everyone else was doing. And there is no shortage of critics who insist that their business models are unsustainable, don’t work, can’t work.

The nice thing about conformity is that if feels safe. No one will criticize you for sticking with the known, the status quo, the best practices. The problem is that if you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you will never get better results than everyone else.

The great myth and cosmic joke is that we will achieve greatness by doing the average. We insist that the road to greatness is best navigated with the tried and true. We enforce mediocrity. Any business and any person that dares to step outside the circle immediately gets pounced on, slapped around, and drug back inside the boundaries of conformity.

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.

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