On the tenacity of norms and innovation

Tom’s most recent post over on Blackbeard reminded me of a story I was told by an erstwhile client during my spell in India.

In his younger years, said client had been a lowly agency side man like many of us. He had gone on a field visit for a tracking study to meet with a field head whom he described quite directly as “a real crook”. I assume this was meant in a research context only and he wasn’t an arsonist or a murderer or anything. Anyway, on this field visit it was discovered that the crook was living up to his reputation and allowing his team to flout even the most basic of field controls – no right hand rule, no adherence to the assigned starting points, ignoring instructions on routing and rotating – your basic PAPI chaos. When my client intimated that this was completely unacceptable and that he needed to whip his team into shape forthwith he was met with a knowing smile. “Do you really want me to fix things?” the crook asked, “we’ve always worked this way, aside from the time and effort required to put things right which will be costly, you will also need to explain the radical step changes in your data to your client”. This was where the story ended so I don’t know for certain what call my client took but being a fine and upstanding research man, I naturally assume he did the right thing.

What’s clear from this story is that Tom has something of a point. There’s no doubt that historical trends, databases and norms are, at times, invoked as a defence against change even where the established order is spectacularly wrong. The order being established is all the validity it needs. And of course this is a very extreme example, the simple weight of inertia can easily discourage those of us with far greater scruples than our protagonist above from making changes that untether us from the warm comfort of norms.

But I’m not convinced it’s as bad as all that. In my view, norms have the potential to raise the bar for innovation and change. You cannot make change for change’s sake. You do not flit around on the short-lived breeze of fad and fashion. If you are going to make a change to a research architecture built around norms then you have to demonstrate clearly that what you are moving to provides a genuine, substantive improvement over what currently exists. More than that – better looking architecture is easy to find, checking the structural engineering is up to the job requires the real stress testing that norms help provide. What norms predicate against is incremental tweaks around the edges (the research equivalent of feature creep) and the roll-out of ill thought out, half baked ideas. Houses built on the sand.

Saying norms are ‘tenacious’ is certainly right, but that tenacity need not be allied with enmity. Norms can perform the role of Devil’s advocate always probing with the questions ‘why is that better than what we have?’ and ‘can you prove that it is?’. If you have constantly asked those questions then not only will you always have a powerful rationale for any change but you will also have reinforce the validity of what you were doing previously.

One thought on “On the tenacity of norms and innovation”

  1. I was going to reply to Tom’s post. But I’m fickle and forgot, so here goes …

    It strikes me that there are 2 types of norms at play: Tom seemed to be thinking about industry norms, databases relating to specific tools, intellectual property stuff. There’s also the kind of within study consistency that you talk about.

    What surprises me, on reflection, is that we seem more willing to change surveys from year to year and lose our very specific consistency (by changing the questionnaire, sample, mode of data collection etc…) than we are to abandon broader meta consistency.

    Or is my experience very different to everyone else’s?

    Loving the ad for breast enhancement btw!

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