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The crucial role of positive deviants in innovation

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The crucial role of positive deviants in innovation

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I’ve written before about the concept of positive deviance.  It was popularized by the work of Richard Pascale and his work in aid and development projects.  His work revolved around changing behaviours from something negative to something healthy and positive.

He found that if he went blustering into a community, saying how wrong they were for doing things the way they were (and often had been for an awfully long time) he was generally met with quite stern resistance.

If he spent some time monitoring and observing that community however, he nearly always found one or two people who managed to buck the norm.  They had deviated from the status quo in their community and had found a way to live that was much healthier.

Pascale would thus use these deviants to help spread their behaviour throughout the community.  That tended to be much more successful because they had both the credibility of being a part of the community in the first place, but they’d also generally found a solution that worked in the unique environment they were in (rather than the rarefied air of a think tank or the like).

Avoid the immune response

It’s often a bit like that when you try and implement something innovative inside an organization.  Such things are often top down projects (you know, with a sponsoring executive and all that).  If they in any way buck the norm of how the organization operates, it tends to elicit the immune response of employees as they seek to drive out that which is different and carry on just how they were (thank you very much).

You don’t want that.  No one wants that.  Just as Pascale found in his field work however, the chances are there are some positive deviants already operating in your organization.  They’re probably operating under cover so you’ll need to look hard, but they will surely be out there.

They’ll have found a way to do innovative things within the constraints of the existing system.  They tend to fit the cultural norms of the organization, but have just managed to stretch them in new ways.

All of which means the organization is much less likely to reject them when they raise their heads, which is immensely important if the innovation is to succeed.

It’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz.  All the time, the answer was in your own back yard, you just need to get out there and look for it.

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