When To Break From The Herd, And When Not To

A few years ago I interviewed the man who invented the graph database, the only significant advance in database technology in 40 years. We discussed the point where he moved on from selling to small, innovative companies to talking to the big corporates.

“So the agenda changed,” I suggested. “It became more about security, scaleability, compatibility with other systems…”

“No,” he said. “It was really only about one thing. Social proof. You have to be able to say something like

‘four of the world’s largest retailers are already using our software. It’s safe for you to be the fifth.”

Now relying on social proof is not a stupid strategy. For instance what did you do, pre-online reviews, if you were in a strange city and wanted somewhere to have dinner? Look for a place that was already busy. Generally a reliable method.

Social proof comes with one big advantage, and one big disadvantage.

Advantage: it’s a reliable way of arriving at an OK choice.

Disadvantage: it’s a reliable way of arriving at an OK choice.

The advantage is that it lets you make an OK decision in a field where you don’t have a lot of knowledge or judgment.

The disadvantage is that relying on social proof will never make a choice that’s better than OK, neverĀ  give you an edge. The big corporates who waited for the graph database to become mainstream will never gain an advantage from adopting it; they will only ever be keeping up.

This is the point. If you make all your decisions based on social proof, you are accepting a life of average-ness (that’s a euphemism for mediocrity). You will have no competitive advantage other than a willingness to work harder, longer or for less money than anyone else. Do you find that appealing?

I am not suggesting that you take all decisions ignoring what everyone else is doing. That would be excessive, and exhausting. Nevertheless, you need to do something different from the herd in some area if you want to get results superior from the herd.

That leaves you with two questions:

  1. Where do I part company with what most people are doing? and;
  2. How do I develop the knowledge and judgment to be sure that when I ignore the herd I make a good choice?