Norms...and How to Find Them


by Howell J. Malham Jr.


At GreenHouse::Innovation, we do a lot of thinking about social norms, particularly their role in innovation wherever, whenever people are involved.


To effect change in social systems, you need to first identify and disrupt the norms that are keeping whatever is is.

Like lines of code that control how a computer program runs, norms dictate how we behave among others in our homes and workplaces; in our neighborhoods and communities, online and off.

They’re powerful. They’re invisible. They’re everywhere.

And they’re always in flux, shifting as we jump from reference group to reference group — those social circles that hold the cues and clues regarding the expectations of how we should and should not behave in our various roles in any given social situation: as family members, as friends, as workers, as voters, as consumers.

Many norms are benign even necessary for coordinating our efforts to work and live together in social groups; in fact, any significant human undertaking requires connection and collaboration, which demands an alignment of mutual expectations regarding our behavior in the eyes and minds of people who matter to us.

A concord of norms, in other words.

Others can be detrimental, working silently, invisibly to repel and resist efforts to develop and execute strategies for meaningful, measurable change and growth; for impact and transformation. 

They form our habits. They govern our daily routines. They harden our hearts and minds against the mere thought of change.

Worse, many of us don’t even know it.

You’ll recall the famous story about the two young fish who, when asked by an older, wiser fish “how’s the water?” reply “what’s water?”

Well, we’re the two young fish. Norms are the water.

We can’t seem to get out of our own way when it comes to thinking different about the world and how to effect change in it because we can’t change the way we see the world and the challenges in it.

What does that mean, exactly?

We can’t get out of our own norms. We can’t shake ingrained expectations about change, what it looks like, and what we think others expect us to do to design it.

Small wonder we don't always see the impact or growth that we desire, when and where we desire it.

And why so often our visions of the future look just like the past...with a little more PTO and better dental.

If one is interested and serious about change, one needs to be interested and serious in, first, identifying social norms that are related to the challenges that stand in the way of our goals.

But how can one subvert those nasty, nagging norms if one can't even see them?

With Strategic Imagination™, and a collection of specially crafted lenses that we have designed and developed, we can identify norms that are the biggest barrier to the change. We can determine the problems that they are creating; and how best to solve them in order to improve outcomes and effect change.

In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll be calling out the norms among us; the ones right under our noses that we never, ever notice, and, as result, never think to question or challenge.

Hopefully, it will encourage you to start thinking about norms, too.

Soon, you'll be able to track and identify the ones that are the most powerful and the most resistant to your efforts to design the change you want in your world: the first, critical step in the larger sequence of true innovation. ::

Howell Malham