After class the other night, I caught a good natured ration for using the term “mimetic isomorphism” during a discussion. It’s understandable, as those administering the ribbing know me well enough as to be surprised by not only the utterance, but my ability to actually use it in a contextually appropriate fashion. Actually, I’m picking up and tossing about all sorts of nifty terms, like “extant” (which I cannot seem to pry from my head) and “boundary spanning”. My wife is ready to bludgeon me… I digress.
I recently engaged in a little friendly mimetic isomorphism at work, so I speak from experience. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, for anyone out there in non-profit governance land wondering what this phrase means, I’ll translate into terms more familiar to me. I’d describe it as “thinking inside the box,” or “taking the road most travelled”. I think in terms of analogy to help learn and understand new concepts. As such, I’ve chosen to view mimetic isomorphism as a deer trail (hold on, this may be a stretch, but stay with me…) For those of you lucky enough to be able to spend a significant amount of time in the outdoors, you’ve likely found yourself in a situation where you must get from point A to point B in steep difficult terrain. Perhaps you are standing on one mountain and can clearly see your destination on the opposing slope. The hollow between you and the target may appear, from your vantage, to be benign and covered with daisies. Thus you chart a direct course – simply down and then up – easy peasy. Halfway down though, you are sweated wet, having encountered two cliffs, been violated by an unforgiving greenbriar thicket, and nearly stepped on a rattlesnake (didn’t know you could levitate, did you??). What to do? Look for a deer trail. Deer naturally take the path of least resistance. This is their home. They know how to get from the bedroom to the kitchen in the dark. Been there - done that for their entire lives, as did their ancestors. Essentially, they are experienced at navigating their world. Thus, they will generally travel the same way that their predecessors did – via the path of least resistance. Charting a new course, you decide to follow the trail and soon find that it adheres to the contours of the land. Not only are you breathing easier, but soon you have made the turn in the head of the hollow and are gradually gaining altitude in the direction of your destination. Viola!
In her article, Understanding the Behavior of Non-Profit Boards of Directors: A Theory-Based Approach, Judith Miller-Millesen describes a key assumption of institutional theory as “organizations of the same type becoming increasingly isomorphic (or the same as) over time,” via mimetic, coercive or normative practices. (p.536). Thus, for better or worse, and in response to legal (coercive), normal (normative / societal) or simple mimetic pressures, organizations often look for a previously travelled path during formative or transitional stages. As I stated above, the deer trail analogy is a stretch. It doesn’t account for all variables, so it is not a perfect comparison. Actually, in the case of non profit startups, there may often be a better way than the status quo – we just can’t see the forest for the trees.. or the daisies and greenbriars. Maybe, and in contrast to the deer, we brought a machete and can forge our own way though the tangle. The point is, we should guard against limiting our options just because we feel a need to stay in the comfort of the nest. Often legal (coercive) isomorphism is the result a limiting regulatory factor, but hey – we live in a representative republic – call your representative! The cure for mimetic isomorphism is to simply take a step back and objectively evaluate the options. Maybe there is a better way. If no better options materialize, blissfully and mimetically isomorphicate (OK – that’s not a word)… and follow the deer trail. We can learn a lot from animals.
Post Script – At the beginning of this ramble, I noted that I recently and unabashedly mimetically isomorphicated…J Essentially, I was working in a committee to develop bylaws in the formation stage of a local government board. Taking a look around, it was clear to see that there was no use in hacking a new trail. The meat of what was ultimately adopted in that case has been proven effective time and time again. In some instances, we need to recognize that we can’t improve on the design of the wheel…
Miller-Millesen, Judith. (2003). Understanding the Behavior of Non-Profit Boards of Directors: A Theory-Based Approach. Non-Profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly,32.p. 536