Herding for pickle beer. Who would have thought!

Herding is a pattern where an individual or team acts based on the behavior of others. Stated very simply, herding is just like the children’s game follow-the-leader.  Last year, I sat in on a discussion in an organization where being perceived as being helpful was a significant attribute for bonuses and promotions. The R&D Group (software development) had recently been asked to implement a significant SaaS package with a due date before Thanksgiving so that the retail portion of the business would not be impacted. The date was absurd. The CIO had gathered a number of teams together to determine if the work was doable. The answer from each team as they went out of the room was no until a single team said they could do it. In quick succession, everyone changed their minds and played follow-the-leader.  All of the affected teams exhibited herd behavior. As soon as one team broke from the pack everyone followed. The cascade was exacerbated when the CIO muttered “thank-you” after the first two teams said yes. Herding in decision making effectively took “no” off the table. This type of behavior is response-driven.

Herding is often a response to fear and uncertainty.  Animals herd as a protection mechanism; herding makes it more difficult for predators to take advantage of an individual.  Herding plays a similar role in decision making. In our example, until one team broke the pattern everyone had the same answer; everyone was being equally unhelpful.  As soon as one team broke ranks and at least one team followed, it became easy to brand teams saying no as not team players. Which increases risk. Following the leader in this circumstance can be viewed as rational economic behavior. 

Signaled social influence triggers herding.  Humans modify their behavior to adapt to the environment. Peer pressure and socialization are tools to send signals that establish behavioral boundaries.  In our example, the CIO’s muttered comment was an explicit signal and application of influence to the other teams to change course. The policies that establish perceived helpfulness as an important input into the organization’s review process generate subconscious guidance for acceptable behavior.  

Herding occurs in almost every human endeavor. The behavior is not prima facie good or bad, however, when following-the-leader takes away the ability to control work entry, the flow of work can bottleneck and slow to a crawl. Teams that can’t say no when it makes sense will find it difficult to deliver value consistently.