A Different Kind of Herd Mentality

Principles of movement, speed, and position can render our traditional sensemaking approaches useless if we’re not careful.

Think of the words we use to describe our connection to values or strategy — like ‘grounded’, ‘rooted in’, or ‘anchored’ — they all imply some type of static metaphor. The implication is that we are operating from a standing start, alone, with clear sightlines of what is around us and ahead.

In practice, this is rarely true.

Yet, we build strategic plans, program designs, and even their evaluations based on this kind of thinking. We confuse static things with moving things. Worse, we think we’re travelling alone when we’re part of a herd.

Herding Humans

Herds get a bad rap. People use the term ‘herd’ often to refer to mindless collectives (sheep come to mind) that are easily manipulated. That is only partly true. They are not mindless, but they can be manipulated both from within and outside them. But manipulation simply means they can be influenced and changed and that is what innovators seek to do.

Our industry operates as a herd. Our communities operate as herds. Our families do, too. Society and culture exist because there are herds of people coming together under a set of shared patterns of activity. It’s not a bad thing to note that we are moving along with others sharing beliefs, practices, and traditions based on custom, law, habit or circumstances. It’s only by understanding that we are part of such collectives — many of them, some overlapping — that we can better assess how and where we fit on our own and how we can make change happen so that we are in a different position within that herd.

That position could be one of leader, too.

Herd Dynamics

The illusory nature of creating strategies, programs, and policies from a position apart from others creates a myth of independence that can get us into trouble. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, we are embedded in systems — regulatory, geographic, biological and more– that influence our action potential. If we don’t see ourselves as being in motion or as part of a moving collective (even if that’s not done consciously or in a coordinated manner) our plans will have enormous holes in them.

We plan and act differently when we are in motion than stable and calm. The illusion of a herd is that it might feel that we aren’t really moving if our fellow herd-mates are moving at a similar rate of speed and there are many around us. Just look outside the window of your car at those beside you while driving (maybe just as a passenger, for safety sake) and things don’t look like they are moving much when really they might be going at 100km/h.

Our position, our speed, and the movement of all of the actors in this herd are distorted and obscured when we are moving together.

This is critical for developing an understanding of what is really happening. New designs and new ways of measurement, sensemaking, and decision-making are what we need to apply here rather than the traditional ones.

For example, in understanding public health impact of certain policy decisions for COVID-19 we need to realize that we are not looking at a new virus anymore, it’s morphed and so, too has the public’s attitudes, knowledge, behavioural history, and certain needs for resources along the way. In some cases, people might be more likely to comply with recommendations and in some not. These recommendations have also morphed and changed.

We can’t keep approaching the problem as if it is new and static nor can we frame our expectations in the same way. It’s time to innovate our research and thus innovate our understanding of complex, dynamic problems so we can innovate solutions or at least ways to make our herds a little healthier, safer and prosperous.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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