To be or not to be conformist: which strategy should you choose?
Organizations located in the same industry can make vastly different choices. The majority may adopt strategies that are so similar that they appear to be characteristic of the market, while others owe their success to choices that could be described as “deviant”. What factors push some organizations to conform and others to exhibit their distinctiveness? Pierre-Antoine Kremp and Rodolphe Durand explain the phenomenon by drawing on the example of US symphony orchestras.
Organizations face dual pressures for distinctiveness and conformity. On the one hand, they must build a competitive edge by demonstrating their difference in order to be successful. On the other hand, to ensure their legitimacy and win recognition as full-fledged players in their industry, they need to conform to the expectations and standards that prevail in their particular market. This latter pressure is so strong that the success of some organizations is due precisely to the fact that they conform better than others to industry norms and to the expectations of the customers and third parties that evaluate them.
Understanding conformity: alignment and conventionality
To understand what motivates some organizations to conform, we need to recognize the existence of two different forms of conformity: alignment and conventionality. On the one hand, aligned organizations adopt all the attributes of other market players and end up blending in with the rest of their industry; on the other hand, conventional organizations choose to exhibit only a limited number of highly salient attributes, central to their industry, which enables them to stand out. Symphony orchestras illustrate the differences between alignment and conventionality particularly well. Orchestras that seek alignment choose to conform by offering balanced repertoires that mirror the average choices of other orchestras in a given season. Organizations that opt for conventionality conform by specializing in a limited number of canonical works or composers, with whom their name subsequently becomes associated. Alignment and conventionality are two forms of conformity which organizations can find desirable for different reasons. Alignment protects an organization from negative evaluations. Conventionality can help an organization obtain greater visibility and recognition.
To understand what motivates some organizations to conform, you need to recognize the existence of two different forms of conformity: alignment and conventionality
Choosing distinctiveness over conformity
The research conducted by Durand and Kremp starts from the intuition that individual and organizational actors do not choose to conform or distinguish themselves by chance. Orchestras and musical directors with outstanding status can afford to play original works and composers because they will not be jeopardized by a few negative reviews. Consequently, they do not need to align themselves and feel relatively free to be original. They also have reduced interest in being conventional, because they already have sufficient visibility. Similarly, low-status actors can also choose to be unorthodox, but for different reasons. With nothing to lose, they have less reason to seek to avoid negative criticism at all costs. Furthermore, by making very different choices than the other actors in their sector, they can attempt to stand out and avoid comparisons that might not otherwise play in their favor.
Conformity of middle-status actors
Durand and Kremp find that middle-status organizations and individual leaders are more likely to be conformist. But individual actors do not conform in the same way as organizations. Middle-status orchestras generally seek to align themselves with industry choices in order to elude negative evaluations and establish their legitimacy. While middle-status orchestras favor alignment, middle-status musical directors tend to conform by adopting conventional repertoires. This is due to the fact that audiences usually blame an orchestra for its flops while attributing its successes to the conductor. Consequently, musical directors tend to link their name to canonical composers in an attempt to attract public acclaim and are less concerned about avoiding criticism (which they are rarely subjected to even when their choices differ significantly from those of their competitors).
Individuals and Organizations, Between Conformity and Distinctiveness
Beyond the world of symphony orchestras, the study shows that individuals and organizations have a tendency to conform to the same normative pressures in different ways. Organizations, when they have to respond to these pressures, align themselves with their competitors and end up blending in the crowd. On the other hand, individual leaders respond to normative pressures by demonstrating their commitment to conventionality, which, paradoxically, enables them to display their singularity for their own benefit.
Based on an interview with Pierre-Antoine Kremp and the article “Classical Deviation: Organizational and Individual Status as Antecedents of Conformity”, co-written with Rodolphe Durand, forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal.
Why and how do firms conform, even when distinctiveness is a precondition for competitive advantage? Depending on its status, a firm can try to align itself with its competitors in order to avoid negative evaluations; depending on the status of its individual leader, it can make conventional choices in order to gain visibility and recognition. Paradoxically, conventionality enables organizations to stand out even when they face strong pressures to conform. What holds true for symphony orchestras can be extrapolated to other fields. It is possible that the behavior of corporate executives has something in common with that of conductors, who succeed in complying with the norms of their industry while underscoring their individual uniqueness.
Kremp and Durand analyzed the concert programming decisions of 27 of the top 30 US symphony orchestras between 1879 and 1969. The research data include the total number of pieces by every composer played per orchestra, musical director and season. Using quantitative analyses, they were able to identify the effect of orchestra and musical director status on the level and the way in which programming choices conform to the musical canon. Some conductors and orchestras enjoy international renown, while others struggle to reach beyond local audiences. These differences in status determine the degree of alignment and conventionality.