What is normal, and is it a good thing?

I was on a flight from LA to Chicago this past week, my first with Virgin Airlines. I could tell early on things were a little different. To begin, while I was walking toward a restaurant in the concourse, out of nowhere a red suited employee stopped me to – of all things – see if I needed help. The nerve! Then once on board, I was introduced to the safety demonstration through a MTV-style music video that would put Madonna to shame. I think it was the first time in 10 years I have paid attention. This was not normal.

My daughter used to say, “Normal is just a setting on a dryer.”

In the general sense of the term, normal means conforming to the standard or the average. The definition I like is, “conforming to the convention of one’s group.”

Think Shift -  David Baker
Think Shift –
David Baker

To truly answer the question, we must first clarify: normal in relation to what?

Are you talking about intelligence, behaviour, dress, attitude, service, profit? “Normal” can refer to almost anything, but in the absence of a frame of reference, there is no answer. Describing something or someone as normal is really a characterization of a relationship: it can’t exist without an “other.” It’s a description of both a group and the outlier.

When you think of airlines, how would you characterize the convention of the group? I suggest it is largely unhappy, hassled people mostly concerned with getting to end of their shift or flight.
Later in the week I was on another flight, this time with United. An attendant named Glory was in charge; she was happy and clearly invested in us all having a great experience. She was enjoying herself and had us talking and smiling. It was obvious she was engaged, and a few passengers and I noted how rare it was.

Normal customer service is what we have come to expect. It doesn’t stand out; it is why we describe it as the norm. Unfortunately, in airlines and restaurants and most businesses today, the minimum level of service – the least you can do to get by – is the norm.
If it’s the outlier who gets the attention, the praise and the repeat business, why do we so often accept the safety of the middle?
Why are we surprised when we phone a customer service department and get a human instead of voicemail? Why is extraordinary so rare?

When Elvis started gyrating his hips as he belted out rock and roll, it was different. But only until others started to follow suit. When Apple reinvented the mobile phone, it was different – until LG, Samsung and HTC started to copy.

Different, when proven attractive, only lasts so long, because others inevitably seek to emulate.

Over time different tends to become normal. It’s just the natural course of events. It’s what happens any time someone breaks the mold.

We have to resist the temptation to be OK with being normal, to fight the path of least resistance and stop accepting the minimum level of customer service, the average attitude or the brand that doesn’t stand out.

We must make the choice not only to be different, but also to stop accepting normal.

If we are going to make a difference, we have to be different and stay different. We have to embrace the commitment and energy it takes to stand up to the pressure to conform. We have to insist the norm is not good enough. We have to be like Virgin Airlines or Glory at United. When those around us want to be normal, we need to choose to stay different.

Shift in Thinking is a monthly article from chief storyteller David Baker with a call to action for organizations and individuals. Using engaging narratives and probing questions, he seeks to provoke a new way of thinking around brand, culture and leadership, and to help readers intentionally realize their potential – Potentionality!

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