Decreasing Conformity in an Innovation Session

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If I were to ask you to quickly recall the last session you went to, most likely the first thing you will say is “Well, a group of us got together and…”  You will probably then continue to focus on what activities were done, where you went, and the results that were obtained. However, a critically important component is often overlooked – the effect of the group on an individual.  Are individuals in a group setting really contributing to the best of their abilities?  Yes, we all know there are the introverts and the extroverts, but despite that we still get the best from each person, right?  Don’t be so sure.

Lines from the Asch Conformity experiment.

Consider the Solomon Asch conformity experiment: A straight line was shown to a group of college students who were all in on the experiment except for a single test subject.  In the test, a card with a straight line (line A) was shown, followed by a card with another set of lines (lines B,C,D).  When asked which line is closest to A, all the students who were part of the experiment were instructed to purposefully give the wrong answer (line C).  Because the experiment was preceded by several sets of cards where correct answers were given by the group, and trust established, the test subject was in a position of distress: follow the group or give the correct answer?  Over-all, the test subject gave the wrong answer (line C) 32% of the time.  During the course of repeating the experiment, about 75% of the time the subject conformed at least once.  Only rarely was an individual observed who gave the right answer (line B) each time, while there was a minority (5%) that conformed to the group every time.

Experiments like this one and others that have been conducted in the field of Social Psychology demonstrate “Conformity”.  According to Elliot Aronson, author of The Social Animal, conformity is defined as “a change in a persons behaviour or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people.”  There are several factors that contribute toward conformity, but for simplicity, the main factor to consider is the desire for one to be accepted by his/her group of peers.  Considering this, the question for the innovator becomes one of how can we lessen this tendency and encourage more individuality when placed in a group setting?

The answer depends to a large extent on how the innovation session is conducted.  There are numerous techniques to engage people and bring out their creativity that are readily found in books, online, and even from professional facilitators.  Everything from the colour of the room to specific physical activities has been reviewed at one time.  However, one thing not often addressed is how to decrease conformity in a group and nurture an environment where individuals can contribute more to the innovation session.

Ok, so now what?  How do we do this you ask?  As one may expect, the size of the group has an effect on whether or not someone conforms to the group they are in.  As Rod Bond from the University of Sussex[1] describes, a maximum of 3 to 5 people induce this behaviour (with 5 people being where it levels out), while groups of two drastically reduce the effect.  This also ties into the next point: having an ally.  In a variation of the experiment conducted by Asch as previously described, one of the students acted as an ally to the test subject.  Just as before, all the students gave the wrong answer except for one student who was instructed to give the correct answer.  In this situation, when the time came for the test subject to provide an answer, the correct one was given.  What happened? The pressure to conform was drastically reduced.  What does this tell us? Try breaking your large group into smaller groups of two to accomplish a task.  Encourage those paired up together to share something funny about themselves.  In doing so, you will not only help people create an “ally”, but conformity will have been reduced because you have broken down the larger group.

Some other things you may want to try:

  1. Break a complex problem down into smaller, more manageable parts.  Typically when members of a group are uncertain about a problem, they begin to look to others for confirmation.
  2. Conduct innovation sessions without the presence of either someone of authority (e.g. Managers or Directors) or an expert in the field that is the focus of the innovation session.   This will reduce the tendency of others in the group to look to such figures of authority for approval by agreeing with them.
  3. Create an activity where members need to make a commitment to their initial judgment, idea, or response.  In doing so, their probability to change their mind or conform to the group will greatly decrease.

Why is this important for innovation sessions?  Think about it: the Asch experiment drives home that in a typical session, there is a high probability that people will not be giving their own true answer or contribution.  By using these techniques, the innovation session facilitator can likely maximize the contribution from each person and hopefully obtain even more ideas and increased levels of creativity.

Resources

Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal.  10th ed.New York: Worth Publishers, 2008.

Gleitman, Henry, Alan J. Fridlund, and Daniel Reisberg.  Psychology.  6th ed.New York: Norton, 2004.


[1] Bond, Rod; Group Process & Intergroup Relations, 2005 Vol 8(4) 331-354

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2 thoughts on “Decreasing Conformity in an Innovation Session

    innovationexplorer said:
    February 13, 2012 at 10:39 am

    It is humbling to realize that 3/4 of the people on a given team have the potential to not share a real opinion or truth in favor of going along with the group. Obviously the easy answer is to propose that this is something that organizations should screen for through the HR process, however, with ‘conformity’ such a widespread characteristic would it be better to focus on training and development to discourage it?

      innovationhunter responded:
      February 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      Interesting question. I think conformity also depends upon the persons own psychology and in some cases may be tied to something deeper like self esteem, past experiences in a group setting, self perception, level of anxiety, etc. Therefore, perhaps courses and training that increase awareness and provide an individual with basic tools to help address these topics can be of value to a certain extent.

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