Right under our noses and right under our feet, there is a well-spring of organisational insight that, if tapped, could lead to seismic shifts in performance and innovation. In even the most traditional of companies, implementing innovations wouldn’t come up against resistance to change. The costs would be far less than traditional initiatives and the results would be longer lasting. And in the process, your peoples’ engagement and enthusiasm would rise, not fall.

Is there a catch? Only a small one. It requires that we think differently about where and how change and innovation happens in our organisations.

This profound approach to change and innovation is called Positive Deviance. The premise is that inside every organisation there already exists people who are adopting practices and strategies that are solving intractable problems. Facing the same challenges and with the same constraints as everyone else, this minority of individuals – positive deviants – are able to be resourceful and find innovative solutions.

Positive Deviance wasn’t developed in a top business school, but by Save the Children officials in poverty stricken Vietnam in the 1990s.  They found that even though most children were malnourished, some children, living in exactly the same circumstances, were not. When they explored this, they found that a small minority of mothers were breaking locally accepted norms on gathering and preparing food. With the same access to limited food supplies, their children were well nourished and healthy.

These mothers were positively deviating from the prevailing conventions on how to feed their children. When the other mothers in the villages realised this, they wanted to know how their peers did it. Because the solution wasn’t imposed by an outside ‘expert’, the ideas were readily accepted and adopted. It had a profound impact on childhood mortality in Vietnam.

There are also examples of how it has been used to good effect in a corporate environment. Before the days of assigned seating on budget airlines, crew were instructed not to hold back seats for any passengers. Speed of boarding was crucial if the airline was to meet its on-time departure targets. And avoiding late departure penalties was a key to these airlines being able to keep fares low.

Experienced cabin crew knew that the policy of ‘no preassigned seats, ever’ was unworkable. When they came to seat people who had different needs, such as families traveling with young children or people who needed special assistance, the policy slowed them down. Making these accommodations was a drain on time and was actually impacting flight departure times – the very measure it was designed to ensure.

In a well known budget airline, one positive deviant employee, working in the best interests of the overall corporate goal of on-time take-off, realised the policy was inhibiting this strategically important goal. So she decided to designate the first four rows as ‘not available’ so she could quickly accommodate the inevitable proportion of passengers who would otherwise need to be moved. The crew who saw this innovation work on that flight each took it to their next flight and their colleagues in turn used it in their subsequent flights.

This is how organisational systems adapt and evolve. Small solutions that work in the system’s best interests are picked up and become established practice as people adopt good ideas that work. Because these solutions are generated within the community, they don’t meet the same level of resistance that change imposed from outside does. They are deeply pragmatic and others can see they work – they don’t need to be convinced by managers or consultants.

What this means for how we lead

The prevailing leadership approach adopted in organisations is that of ‘find and fix’. That is, assume that adherence to company policy and procedure is always good. When leaders spot deviations, they’re taught to take remedial action to restore the behaviour they expected to find. It’s a command and control approach that assumes the wisdom within the system is concentrated at the top.

The reason that positive deviance has taken off with sociologists but not so much in corporate environments may be the top-down way we lead in organisations. Assuming that deviations from what’s expected can be positive requires leaders to shift their attention away from finding the failing norm towards spotting the successful exception. That is, uncover the positive outliers and explore with curiosity what’s going on and why. This requires leaders to pay attention differently and to different things.

But it also means we have to value different types of people. If leaders value people who are ‘good’ – that is compliant, then that’s who’ll they’ll promote and who they’ll look to to find solutions to problems. But this might not always be where the best solutions reside.

Adopting a positive deviance perspective doesn’t mean we have to abandon the need to people to adhere to critical organisational processes, but rather balancing these with greater team and individual autonomy.

In the budget airline example outlined earlier, there would have been no question that a safety procedure was suitable for adaptation. As it was, a curious executive was a passenger and experienced first hand the innovative ground-up solution that had been created through positive deviance. Rather than impose the company line, with curiosity she asked the crew about it to understand how and why it had come about. Taking this knowledge back to HQ, it eventually became company policy; improving departure times and increasing profits.

A positive deviance approach assumes that it is those closest to the work that are best placed to address and solve organisational problems. These individuals and groups are self-organising and possess a collective intelligence which the approach to positive deviance seeks to find and understand. It assumes that behaviour change in a system is best achieved through practice and doing without the aid of someone ‘in charge’ being relied on to make it happen.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Jacqueline Conway is an organisation effectiveness consultant with two decade’s experience working with executives as they grapple with disruptive change and relentless complexity. She helps executive teams increases their adaptive capability as they align their culture to their purpose and as they solve intractable problems.

About Jacqueline Conway