First Mover Effects

People remember the first, not always the best. This was sage wisdom that my doctoral advisor shared when speaking about not waiting to share your ideas. This advice reflects much of what we know about human psychology — for good and otherwise.

What are your earliest fears from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Did you spend a lot of time washing your hands? In those times you left your home, did you wear a mask? My guess is that you said yes to the first, no to the second. Yet, as time passed and the science emerged it was wearing masks that played a far bigger role in the fight against the pandemic. Nevertheless, people are still wiping down their grocery bags despite little evidence that COVID is transmitted from surfaces.

The reason is partly due to what theories came out first.

When we think of ‘first-mover’ advantages we typically think of businesses. As Fernando F. Suarez and Gianvito Lanzolla write in the Harvard Business Review, much of what we know about these advantages are half-truths. They define first-mover advantages as:

A first-mover advantage can be simply defined as a firm’s ability to be better off than its competitors as a result of being first to market in a new product category. 

Just like with COVID information, the first isn’t always the best in industry. Yet, it’s often the first — or first known — that we follow.

This effect can be profound and is often unconscious.

Conscious and Unconscious Leaders and Followers

As we’ve seen from COVID-19 information, the first claims that masks weren’t needed has stuck with some. The rise of anti-masker movements is tied partly to the early claim about what masks did and did not do. Our early science was wrong (or rather, incomplete). Yet, it’s remembered.

It is difficult to shake these first beliefs as we adopt new ones and learn. The same applies to other areas of our lives and work.

What does a successful business or leader look like? You probably have some clear ideas based on when you started looking into the sector you work in.

Mark Zuckerberg and his peers introduced a whole generation of young entrepreneurs to a start-up culture that looked and felt a particular way. This largely bro-and-hoodie frat-like culture was countered by the GirlBoss movement that brought together a more stylish, polished, but no less toxic environment. These were just the latest in a string of cultural movements triggered by the first mover. In tech sectors, Microsoft was once the model. Then Apple. Pretty soon, it was Tesla or Spotify, until it wasn’t.

These early models provide us with a guide (not a rule) of what a certain ‘thing’ looks like. Our role-based identity is formed partly by these models as we move into something new.

Designing Paths

One of the biggest barriers I face in working with clients seeking change is revealing and reimagining their pathways. Path dependence is a strong force that drives us into patterns based on what we’ve done before. Much of this is only semi-conscious.

Using visual thinking, reflective practice, and other means I help organizations sit with what they do and how they do it. It’s the first step toward designing paths forward and making us aware of where we lead and where we follow.

Leadership comes from designing for the horizon and building on where we are, not where we think we are.

I find myself using this approach to questioning first movers all the time in my own work. Have I modelled my practice off of ideas, styles, patterns, or habits that aren’t in line with my values? Why do I do what I do in the way I do it?

Where am I leading and where am I following and am I conscious of both?

These are questions to ask ourselves to understand where change is needed, where innovation takes place, and where we need to stand pat. In doing so, we can better determine where and who are first movers are and what effects they have on us.

This simple task of learning where we move and why is critical to understanding the hidden forces that influence our strategic decisions. If you need or want help in learning more about your organization lets grab a virtual coffee.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash and KOBU Agency on Unsplash

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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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