A variety of human group behaviors can undermine innovation. For best results, we need to be aware of them and mitigate those that can derail innovation efforts.

Herd behaviour describes how individuals in a group can act together without planned direction. When animals partake in herd behaviour, for example in a dangerous situation, each individual group member reduces the danger to itself by migrating as close as possible to the centre of the fleeing group. The herd thus appears as a unit in moving together, but this action emerges from the uncoordinated behaviour of self-serving individuals.

Herd behaviour is distinguished from herd mentality because it applies to all animals, whereas the term mentality implies a uniquely human phenomenon. Herd mentality implies a fear-based reaction to peer pressure which makes individuals act in order to avoid feeling “left behind” from the group, i.e. to adopt certain behaviours and follow trends. Herd mentality is also sometimes known as “mob mentality.”

This sounds very similar to what often happens in many ideation / innovation / creative thinking workshops where thoughts and ideas are allowed to develop freely with individuals feeding off each other’s ideas to come up with some tangible new ideas for potential innovation realization. Innovation workshops may well have direction in terms of a desired outcome for new ideas but the journey to that point generally takes on a “creative” life of its own and a “planned direction” is often seen to go against the nature of the exercise.

How herd behavior applies to innovation

I propose that for humans in the innovation context, the terms herd behaviour and herd mentality pertains to their conduct in everyday decision-making, idea sharing, judgment and opinion-forming. In a group we often look for validation and support and we observe the actions of others and then make the same choice that the others have made, independently of our own private information signals because it is usually sensible to do what other people are doing.

We engage in herding behaviour every day without even realizing it, as we often make decisions based on learning from the information of others. How many times have you made a choice of dining at one of 2 adjoining restaurants merely because the one has people in it and the other is empty? You made the choice because you assumed the restaurant with people in must be the better choice? As the night goes on, other people choose the same restaurant for the same reason. However the first person to pass by the restaurants found them both empty. Assuming both looked appealing, their decision was random as to which to choose, but it was the catalyst for further herding behaviour also known as information cascade. This situation arises where seeing many people make the same choice provides evidence that outweighs one’s own judgment. There is a collective noun to describe individuals partaking in these phenomena. They are called “sheeple,” a contraction of “sheep” and “people.”

Information cascades can sometimes lead to arbitrary or even erroneous decisions.

Nevertheless, information cascades can sometimes lead to arbitrary or even erroneous decisions. We must consider the effect of this behavior in the ideation process, in which numerous people are involved and are interacting with each other. Members may hide themselves within a group so as to remain anonymous, some for fear of reprisal or rejection and some purely to emulate or mimic other members of a group of a higher status. They may also support an idea due to peer pressure or just because someone else did and it seems a good idea.

Does herd mentality skew innovation?

So as herding goes, we humans seem to be driven a lot by emotion rather than pure instinct, like many animals. So does this emotion adversely skew the results in the innovation process or is it desired?

The bandwagon effect is a form of groupthink. The general rule is that conduct or beliefs spread among people with “the probability of any individual adopting it increasing with the proportion to whom have already done so” (definition from Wikipedia). As more people come to believe in something, others also “hop on the bandwagon,” regardless of the underlying evidence. The tendency to follow the actions or beliefs of others can occur because individuals directly prefer to conform, or because individuals derive information from others. The bandwagon effect seems to have very similar results to that of herding.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision – without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. The main negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. This type of behavior is contrary to what is desired when trying to come up with breakthrough ideas for innovation.

The problem with conformity and cohesiveness

Experts claim that groupthink and herd behavior are extreme forms of collective consciousness which is a term that refers to the shared beliefs and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. The term has been used to describe people within a social group becoming aware of their shared traits and circumstances, and as a result acting as a community and achieving solidarity. Rather than existing as separate individuals, people come together as dynamic groups to share resources and knowledge like working for a company.

Individuals within a group may also seek group cohesiveness, for example to create stability within the group by creating bonds with all its members and the group as a whole. Cohesiveness among group members can develop from various dimensions, including a heightened sense of belonging, interpersonal attraction and teamwork. In an innovation workshop, cohesiveness is not what is often desired. It’s the opposite – interaction between diverse minds – that ignites the creative spark for new ideas.

Why do people conform?

In the work context, conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to what individuals perceive is normal of their group. This influence occurs in small groups and the company as a whole, and may result from subtle unconscious influences, or direct and overt peer pressure. Conformity can occur in the presence of others, or when an individual is alone.

People often conform from a desire for security within a group. Unwillingness to conform carries the risk of social rejection. In this respect, conformity can be a means of avoiding bullying or deflecting criticism from peers.

Are we really gathering individual creative ideas or are we ending up with a mediocre ensemble driven by emotion and biased towards a “stronger” minority?

In the context of innovation, both peer pressure and conformity may manifest negatively. Conformity is about the influences pertaining to the formation and maintenance of “business as usual” norms, and helps companies function smoothly and predictably via the self-elimination of behaviors seen as contrary to unwritten rules. In this sense, it can be perceived as a negative force that prevents acts that are perceptually disruptive or dangerous, something truly innovative companies happily embrace. Because conformity is a group phenomenon, factors such as group size, unanimity, cohesion, status, prior commitment, and public opinion help determine the level of conformity an individual displays.

So while forward thinking companies strive to leverage the collective consciousness of their employees in terms of knowledge and resource sharing to benefit innovation exercises, they need to be aware of the more extreme behavioral patterns that may be exhibited by their staff when put in certain situations and under certain conditions, and be aware of the potential effect they have on the “individual” ideas gathered. In other words, are we really gathering individual creative ideas or are we ending up with a mediocre ensemble driven by emotion and biased towards a “stronger” minority?

Aim for collective intelligence

Collective intelligence, on the other hand, is a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making in humans. Collective intelligence is mass collaboration. This is what companies need to tap into and leverage for innovation to flourish. I submit that the quality, usefulness and reliability of the collective intelligence gleaned are inversely proportional to the extremeness of the collective consciousness behavior exhibited by members of a group. In other words, The more extreme the behavior, the less useful and reliable the information gathered for use in the innovation ideation process.

The four principles of collective intelligence

According to Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, collective intelligence is mass collaboration and in order for collective intelligence to happen, four principles need to exist. So if we get this right, we should be a step closer to having more meaningful and valuable information to work with:

1. Openness: Sharing ideas and intellectual property even though these resources provide the edge over competitors. More benefits accrue from allowing others to share ideas and gain significant improvement and scrutiny through collaboration.

2. Peering: Horizontal organization where intellectual property is developed and shared where users are free to modify and extend provided they make it available for others. Peering succeeds because it encourages self-organization – a style of production that works more effectively than hierarchical management for certain tasks.

3. Sharing: Companies have started to share some ideas while maintaining some degree of control over others, like potential and critical patent rights. Limiting all intellectual property shuts out opportunities, while sharing some expands markets and brings out products faster.

4. Acting globally: The advancement in communication technology has prompted the rise of global companies at low overhead costs. The internet is widespread; therefore a globally integrated company has no geographical boundaries and may access new markets, ideas and technology.

However I submit that while these principles may be embraced and present in an organization and that “mass collaboration” may well be taking place, the collaborative ideation results can still be skewed based on the plethora of human behaviors that are possibly involved.

What have been discussed up until now are groups of people and the interaction between the individuals in the group, possible resulting behaviors and their effect on the innovation process. What are not discussed here are the various forms of collective behavior and why people join groups, how groups are formed and their characteristics.

That in itself is an extensive subject and I only wanted to focus on the more transient type groups that are formed for innovation projects. I refer to them as project groups. Project groups are generally cross-function groups of individuals brought together for the duration of a specific, time-limited project and are usually disbanded once the project is complete.

These types of groups are often not established long enough for all the complicated group dynamics or even inter-group dynamics to start influencing behaviors. It’s more the immediate behaviours that kick in that I was interested in exploring.

Furthermore, the advent of collaborative toolsets that facilitate ideation and the innovation process will also affect human behavior. I believe some of the challenges discussed above have been considered in the design of these toolsets and that one of the measures of a good toolset is its ability to negate some of the negative aspects of human behaviour to ensure the highest quality of ideation material is obtained.

I submit that given the complexity of human behaviour exhibited in groups, it is imperative that companies embarking on the innovation trail must invest in quality toolsets, to ensure they are getting the most out of their resources and are gathering the very best ideas.

By Colin Crabtree

About the author

Colin Crabtree has been in the IT industry for over 30 years in various positions and is currently involved in a number of initiatives at Gijima to promote and support innovation in the workspace.

Kind acknowledgement to Wikipedia and its contributors for the research material.