Saturday, October 1, 2016

Making Positive Deviance Work in Organizations

Although the term positive deviance has been around for at least twenty years, not many executives I know are familiar with this term, much less with using it as a tool to improve their organizations. And unlike other organizational change initiatives, there seem to be few examples of successful applications of positive deviance in the work place. The web site for the Positive Deviance Initiative ( lists many examples from NGOs and communities around the world but no examples from business organizations.

To summarize briefly, positive deviance is part of a branch of psychology referred to as positive organizational scholarship. Pascale et al. (2010) describe it as follows:

Positive deviance (PD) is founded on the premise that at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problem that confounds others. This individual is an outlier in the statistical sense … in most cases, this person does not know he or she is doing anything unusual. Yet once the unique solution is discovered and understood, it can be adopted by the wider community … community engagement is essential to discovering noteworthy variants in their midst and adapting their practices and strategies. (p. 3)

The classic example, provided by Pascale et al. in their book, is that of the problem of malnutrition in Vietnamese villages that the organization Save the Children faced. Rather than bringing in outside experts to analyze the situation and then provide food and use agricultural techniques (impossible anyway since financial resources were limited), the organization went to local villages where the problem was severe and had villagers identify those who had the best-nourished children. Then they asked the villagers to visit the mothers of these families to find out what they were doing differently. From there, the ideas they learned spread throughout the village, and malnutrition dropped 65 to 85 percent in two years.

The PD approach basically suggests that in every community, there are individuals or groups that are using a practice that is different or deviant from the norm that seems to be solving a problem that seems insurmountable. Typically, these individuals or groups are not using special resources to address the problem. By learning about what they are doing, and disseminating this approach in the community, the problem can then be addressed. One of the most important assumptions in PD is that the “answer” to the problem is already found in the community and not something that is brought from the outside.

So why has this concept not caught on in organizations, despite some early attempts (as described in the Pascale et al. book)? And are there any lessons learned that organizations can use when implementing an approach like this? In my mind, there are at least five barriers or issues. First, it might be argued that organizations simply do not have such positive deviant practices. Pascale et al. so much as suggest this when they mention in their book that positive deviance might be more suited to sales environments, where there is more variation in performance than, say, people in assembly lines or office cubicles. But wait a minute: organizations, especially global organizations with subsidiaries in different countries, are no longer such monolithic entities, if they ever were. While there may be standard operating procedures that any organization will have, implementing these procedures across countries (or even across regions within a country) will inevitably be different, leading to differences or variations in performance.

Some years ago, I learned about an organization that had decided to close several of its manufacturing plants in various locations in the United States. The plant managers were all told about 18 months in advance that their plants were to be closing. In the meantime, Corporate HQ continued to keep track of production, efficiency and other performance measures to make sure that these plants would continue to function efficiently. In all but one plant, performance measures began to decline. To management’s surprise, one plant stood as an outlier – if anything, productivity was better than it had been before the plant closing was announced. Intrigued, a couple of corporate Finance people flew down to visit the plant. In short, what they learned was that the plant manager was someone who did many of the right things that good leaders did. He communicated almost daily with his employees to give them updates on the situation, he asked his HR staff to help employees put their resumes together and train them on interviewing skills, and he reached out to local employers to help his plant employees with other job opportunities.

Second is the organizational barrier. Because of the command-and-control nature of many organizations, Pascale et al. argue, these organizations use top-down tools to control variations and create process standardization. The authors give an example of what happened at Genentech when it found that two salespeople out of a national force of 242 were selling twenty times more of a certain product than their peers. After finding out what these two salespeople were doing differently, the company decided to communicate these salespersons’ practices through a broadcast e-mail followed up by a conference call - without involving these two salespeople. The message got at best a lukewarm reception. Their argument is that PD works better with social systems (like villages and universities) that do not practice “corporate management tools” because such tools are top-down while PD is bottom-up. These tools are part of what the authors call the “standard model” in corporations that seems antithetical to PD. Yet many organizations today have moved away from this command-and-control model in an effort to engage employees and drive innovation. These approaches have ranged from Zappo’s embrace of holocracy, Toyota’s production system, to W. L. Gore’s practice of self-managing teams. Not only are organizations trying to be less hierarchical and bureaucratic these days, they are also creating more mechanisms to communicate with and get feedback from employees.

Third is the not-invented-here barrier. In the PD approach, the solutions are discovered by members of the community itself. Therefore, having a consultant or an outside expert recommend solutions is antithetical to the spirit of positive deviance. So is benchmarking, since this approach typically relies on identifying best practices from outside the organization. And “when identification of a superior method is imposed, not self-discovered, cries of ‘We’re not them’ or ‘It just won’t work here’ predictably limit acceptance.” (Pascale and Sternin, 2005). They also state that “some problems can be solved only by those in the trenches.” According to the authors, “… the PD process insists on the precondition that the community determine whether it wants to tackle the change in the first place. Members can opt in or opt out.” (p. 91)

I think we are getting closer here to a real barrier of PD in organizations. In my experience, executives will turn to outside consultants (especially those with prestigious credentials) or look at other organizations before considering best practices internally. Many years ago, while working for a Fortune 500 financial institution, I became part of a core team charged with implementing quality circles. After several meetings with the executive in charge of retail branches in the New York area, she became convinced that this was a good approach to try. In presenting the idea to her branch managers in the New York City area, a Branch Manager volunteered to pilot the program. In the branch, the pilot was wildly successful. Tellers and back-office employees participated in weekly sessions where they came up with excellent suggestions on how to improve efficiency and reduce costs. With the support of a facilitator, they learned new skills in problem-solving and working collaboratively. When they presented their ideas to branch management, they were immediately implemented, thus lowering branch costs as well as reducing turnover especially among the teller population. However, the pilot did not spread much beyond a few branches. Branch management in other geographic areas were skeptical of these changes; they came up with objections similar to what you might expect from similar change efforts, e.g., it won’t work here, we are different, we tried something like that before and it did not work. In my earlier example, when the practices of the one plant were shared with the other plants, management expressed skepticism at the results and doubted whether these practices would apply to them.

Fourth is the incentives barrier. Some time ago, I heard a talk by Steve Kerr, then GE’s Chief Learning Officer. He was describing a visit to a plant that Jack Welch and he were making. The plant manager made a presentation about some of the innovations he had implemented in his plant that had raised efficiency and performance. At the end of the presentation, Welch asked the manager if any other plant managers knew about these practices. The plant manager said that no one else had. Welch then told the manager that when he came back in six months, he expected the manager to have communicated what was done in the plant to his peers in other regions. Without incentives for sharing, and without a culture of collaboration, managers will find little motivation to spread their ideas especially if they are competing with others for scarce resources or bonuses.
Fifth is the culture and leadership barrier. According to Pascale et al., it helps if a group that is positively deviant is relatively isolated from upper management, where they “can’t successfully dictate’.” For the authors, senior managers “see little personal value in changing what they know and can succeed in—especially when challenged by ideas like positive deviance that are detached from the orthodoxies that undergird their historical success.” (p. 135) There is a mindset in senior management that is concerned about “protecting the operating system and cultural norms upon which a large, global enterprise was built.” (p. 135) Well, yes and no. It really depends on the beliefs of the executive team, and on the types of behaviors that senior leadership not only encourages, but also models. Note how successfully Alan Mullaly and his executive team turned around Ford Motor Company partially by role modeling the sharing of ideas and encouraging the spread of these ideas within the organization.

These are not unique barriers to PD; many organizational change efforts fail for some of the same reasons. Leading change experts such as Beer (2009), Conner (2006), Kotter (2002) and others have raised similar concerns about the challenges of effective organizational change. I believe there are some lessons learned from the vast research on organizational change that might help in implementing an approach like positive deviance. Here are three. One, rather than isolate a practice or approach from senior management, use the hierarchy; it can be your friend! This is of course assuming that senior management is at least open to new ideas and willing to listen to them. In my experience, engaging senior management and getting their commitment is still the most powerful way to help drive an initiative forward, and is the first step for successful and sustainable organizational change.

Two, build internal allies and alliances. Kotter writes about having a guiding coalition. Beer suggests creating a task force made up of members that are respected by senior management. Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies (an IT company based in India) describes his recruitment of “young sparks” to help with his company’s initiative of “employees first, customers second” (Nayar, 2010). As another example, Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes, as she described this in a Harvard Business Review interview(October, 2016), created an advisory group of franchise owners while she was at Domino’s Pizza to find new ways to get franchise alignment and grow the business. Getting the buy-in of well-respected leaders and employees in the organization, and not just senior leadership, is key.

Three, use technology, social media and other organizational communication mechanisms to inform others of best practices. As we all know, many employees today are hyper connected. The younger generation of employees uses Facebook, LinkedIn, Snap Chat, and expect their organizations to have these social networking technologies. They are used to being on “weisure time” which is the blurring of work and leisure. According to Meister and Willyerd (2010), these employees are “uber-connected.” Their book gives examples of companies that are using social media not only to accelerate and disseminate new knowledge but also to engage employees in collaborating across the enterprise. For example, IBM’s internal social network is called Social Blue, and is designed to encourage its employees to share and discuss both professional and personal topics. Around 2010, there were approximately 60,000 out of IBM’s work force of 400,000 participating in Social Blue. As another example, Bell Canada’s tool is called ID-ah! and allows any employee to submit ideas and give other employees to chance to vote on these ideas.

Through all this, it is important to remember the most important lessons that positive deviance has taught us: that solutions may already be within the organization, and it is important to build mechanisms to make sure that these solutions are discovered and spread. In perhaps more cases than we would like to imagine, while the solution may not already be there, it will be your front-line employees, those “in the trenches” who will have some pretty good ideas of what’s not working and what might be done to solve the problem. From the Challenger disaster to the BP oil spill to the latest Wells Fargo scandal, note the number of employees who knew what was going on but who were either ignored, shut down or felt intimidated.

Beer, M. (2009). High Commitment High Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Conner, D. (2006). Managing at the Speed of Change. New York: Random House.

Kotter, J. (2002). The Heart of Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Meister, J. and K. Willyerd, K. (2010). The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today. New York: Harper Business.

Nayar, V. (2010). Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Pascale, R. et al. (2010). The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Boston: Harvard Business Press.