Conformity is a powerful force. Over time, through school and our work lives, independent thinking and creativity become so stifled that organizations literally need to give their employees

One morning two weeks ago my three-year-old daughter came down stairs dressed and ready for school with a very interesting design on top of her head. She had combined an alice-band with a scrunchie to be used with that day’s hair design. She proudly announced to all who would listen that she looked like Po (the red Tellatubby). My wife took one look at this and said something like, “You can’t go to school like that. You look funny.”

“Aaggh”, I though to myself, “it’s starting already.” My daughter was being encouragedto conform to a specific framework of proper attire.

Frameworks and innovation

Our ability to comprehend and process frameworks increases as we get older. A small child, for example, cannot understand that the family pet is both a dog and a puppy. It can only be one of them. Any attempt to persuade them any different will only lead to confusion and not understanding. As we get older, our ability to deal with the complexity of different, but complimentary frameworks increases.

This ability is directly related to creativity and innovation. It is the frameworks that we have developed that prevent us from “thinking out of the box.” The “box” is the particular framework or worldview that we are using in that context. An understanding of your own framework, as well as the many that exist, increases your ability to escape the trappings of it.

The force of conformity

While our natural development seems to point to a growing ability to engage in creative thinking, there are societal forces that come into play from an early age (as I discovered two weeks ago), that work against this development, by strongly encouraging us to conform to a particular, and apparently socially acceptable, “correct” framework. Any frameworks that support this worldview are accepted, while any that work against it or are different are rejected. Throughout school, children become scripted to think a certain way, to adopt a certain worldview. Creativity tends to be discouraged, while conformity is rewarded.

Back in the world of older people, one cannot escape the innovation invasion currently happening in business circles. Gurus are seemingly everywhere, and innovation is touted in books, magazines and newspapers. They all carry innovation advice and success stories. Business schools are advertising courses, and consultants are preparing for an innovation economic windfall. But the pressures to conform to the status quo – the existing worldview – within most organizations is so strong, that it’s very difficult to successfully implement innovation. In fact, the risk-averse, “we’ve always done it this way” culture of most organizations begs the question:

Who will give me permission to innovate?

Can I really trust that when I bring my innovative thoughts and ideas forward that you’ll listen? Take me seriously? Entertain my attempts to suggest new ways to do things? I’ve tried before. Remember?

  • When I came to you last year and suggested that because I spent Sunday afternoon sending e-mail I’d like to spend Tuesday afternoon watching a movie you dismissed my thoughts as wishful thinking?
  • When I suggested that perhaps we should allow staff to bring their children into work when they needed help, because most of our staff take work home, you laughed at me?
  • When I offered to investigate how much it would cost to hire a ‘big screen’ TV for the canteen, so those that wanted to, could watch the World Cup, you didn’t even respond?

I know these examples aren’t the industry changing innovation you hope for, but they do represent a start in some “out of the box” thinking.

Our lives are a sad story of being driven toward conformity and fewer and fewer frameworks. Think the same, look the same, be the same. Innovation requires that we move away from the sameness and embrace the different. It means looking like Po (Tellatubby) at times; thinking like me at other times; experiencing an afternoon in the factory with her, talking on the street to him, having lunch at that place with them; visiting those shops we never wanted to be caught dead in.

While the innovation experts spin their how to’s and how not to’s, there are people in our organizations that need to be given permission to innovate. Someone has to re-assure them that it’s OK to think, do, talk, and be different.


Innovation is not going to happen easily on its own. It’s going to take a very deliberate strategy to make sure that no one is left out of this new drive toward creativity and new, more complex frameworks of thinking and problem solving.

If you manage others in your organization, what are you going to do today to begin to assure them that it’s OK to think differently? How will you invite them to tell you a fresh thought they had just this morning, and tomorrow morning, and the morning after that? How will you respond to the conversations that sound like they originated on another planet?

Do you really want to put yourself at risk of having someone like me sit down in front of you, and present a framework for industry-changing innovation, the type that books are written about, and from which billions of dollars can be made? I bet you’re not! Don’t worry though. I probably won’t be walking through your door any time soon. Not until you give me permission to innovate.

Barrie Bramley is a creative and strategic thinker with bundles of enthusiasm and an amazing ability to help teams and individuals think outside the box. He is a founding partner of, where he consults with individuals and companies, assisting them to transform the way they see themselves and what they do.