Positive Deviance: Scaling Internal Innovation

“The faraway stick does not kill the snake.”  “Positive deviants in your midst are the stick close at hand – readily accessible and successfully employed by people just like us.  No need for outside experts or best-practice remedies that may work over there but won’t work here.  No need for deep systemic analysis or a resource-intensive assault on root causes.  Just discover the closest stick and use it.”  -via Pascale, Sternin and Sternin The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems

We have this strange fascination and fixation with and on external expertise…

Going to have a conference?  We need an outside speaker.

Have a tough problem to solve?  We need an outside consultant.

We continually act in our organizations, institutions and systems as if the best thinking, ideas and answers lay outside of our walls.  We work on this unconscious belief and bias that to gain the best knowledge, we have to move beyond our own organizational walls.  Even when those external “experts” have only a very veneer understanding of the context, obstacles and barriers for the adaptive challenges that your organization, institution or system is facing and the problems they are trying solve.

Whereas, Richard Pascale, author of Surfing the Edge of Chaos and Positive Deviance would believe that we need to act and respond much differently, as organizations, institutions and systems.  We need to taken an entirely different approach if we are scale up our creative and innovative efforts to attending to the adaptive challenges we face.  Pascale would declare, “Exploit positive deviance.  Don’t begin with imported ideas from the outside or even from above.  Try to find what’s cooking within the system.”  

As Pascale shares in a Fast Company article on positive deviance, “Real change begins from the inside…”

So, if what Pascale says is true, and that this concept of positive deviance is a better path to scaling the creativity and innovation that already exists in our organizations, institutions, and organizations, then it just may be important for us to determine what positive deviance exactly is?

In his work, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, Pascale communicates that “Positive deviance 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 problems that confounds others.  This individual is an outlier in the statistical sense – an exception, someone whose outcome deviates in a positive way from the norm.  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 and transform many lives.”  For which Pascale adds, “From the positive deviance perspective, individual difference is regarded as a community resource.”

Which is a very different mode of operating for most organizations, institutions and systems, which have tended to focus much more on efficiency, standardization, and when needed, external expertise.  Instead of pushing outliers to the fringes or diminishing their success, positive deviance seeks out these outliers and looks to learn from them, to determine why they have exceeded the status quo while only having access to the same resources and facing the same obstacles and barriers as everyone else.

One problem is that too often, instead of trying to learn from these positive deviants and determine why they have been so much more successful, as well as what could effectively be scaled from that learning, we tend to remain unaware, uninterested, or unwilling to give credence to how they are overcoming obstacles and barriers.  Instead of pulling the outliers into the core, organizations continue to push them to the fringe, failing to learn from or scale what these bright spots could contribute to and for the organization, institution or system.

As they say, sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees…well, in some cases, being caught up in the underbrush keeps us from seeing how tall some trees have grown.

For these bright spots to not only be noticed, but engaged in a positive and transparent way, will take leaders with greater organizational understanding, empathy, engagement and transparency.  Especially, as Pascale adds, these positive deviants are “Invisible in plain sight.  Invisible positive deviants often “don’t know what they know” (i.e., don’t realize they are doing anything unusual or noteworthy).  Living alongside peers, they flourish while others struggle.  Also invisible in plain sight is the community’s latent potential to self-organize, tap its own wisdom, and address problems long regarded with fatalistic acceptance.”

We not only get stuck in our ruts determined by our own behaviors, we allow our mindset and mental models to continue to drive those behaviors forward, long after they  have used up their effectiveness, which is a big factor in pushing our unwillingness to accept the “expertise” that exists internally in our organizations, institutions and systems.  It is those same mindsets and mental models that remain a feature in why many of our biggest problems and adaptive challenges seem to plague our organizational communities consistently and continually.

As Pascale adds, “Once the community has discovered and leveraged existing solutions by drawing on its own resources, adaptive capacity extends beyond addressing the initial problem at hand, it enables those involved to take control of their destiny and address future challenges.”

So, not only does engaging the positive deviance that resides in organizations, institutions and systems help us in attending to and solving the problems and challenges we are currently facing, it also allows us to scale up the learning from those bright spots in ways that better supports solving future problems with internal capacity, rather than relying on external expertise.

Positive deviance is not just about scaling up those bright spots who are succeeding, it is showing the organizational community that the capacity to solve their own problems exists within, and at this very moment someone within the organizational community is providing solutions to those very problems and challenges that we are struggling to solve.  It is this mindset, this reframing of our mental models, that allows the organizational community to move past this ongoing fascination with external supports and expertise that continually diminishes the internal capacity and commitment that exists within.

Once we allow our organizations, institutions and systems to fully realize the potential that resides within, to understand that we have the tools and the internal “expertise” to better solve our own problems and challenges, we will not only move away from trying to outsource our solutions to an external parade of professional problem-solvers, we will begin to create the capacity and commitment to find our way forward in a much more meaningful, impactful and relevant manner.

As Pascale puts forth…

“The solution is just waiting to be uncovered and amplified.”

 

Cognitive Homogeneity: The Churn And Spread Of “Same” Thinking

“Biological systems have evolved to cope with a multitude of threats such as proliferating pathogens, autoimmunity, escalating arms races, deception, and mimicry.  One design strategy that helps biological systems achieve robustness to these threats is diversity – genetic diversity in a species, species diversity in an ecosystem, and molecular diversity in an immune system.”

“By contrast, the computer industry specializes in homogeneity: churning out near-infinite quantities of identical pieces of hardware and software. The result is that an agent that can wreak havoc in one host – read: computer, or increasingly, any number of the objects joining the Internet of Things – can as easily infect any number of those copies.”  -via Joi Ito and Jeff Howe Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future

We live in an ultra, hyper-connected world…

One that is expanding and accelerating, in both frightening and awe-inspiring, exponential ways.

And it is no longer just people that are connected, there are worldwide forecasts that more than 8,000,000 “things” will be connected to the Internet of Things before the end of 2017, ranging from Smart Dust to entire cities.

We also live in a time of incredible emergence.

And it is in this emergence, of connection, complexity, and accelerated change, that we find previously detectable next steps and solutions, often camouflaged in chaos and disruption; creating new patterns, new dynamics and new forces that are both evolving and or devolving our ecosystems in unforeseen and unfathomable ways.

So, in much the same manner that today’s ultra, hyper-connected world is connecting us and “things” – individuals, organizations and systems will all need to invest deeply in and gain greater capacity in adaptability, agility and diversity, to keep pace.

Adaptability.  Agility.  Diversity. (and shifting mindsets)

So, as we move deeper and farther into this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, we are going to need to be much more careful and reflective that we don’t equate the hyper-connectedness of this ecosystem with enhanced cognitive diversity, with expanding and increasing new thinking, new ideas, and new knowledge flows.

The accelerated speed of information in a hyper-connected world can often provide the pretense of and parade itself as the “new” – but, without intentionally searching out cognitive diversity of thinking, we can easily move from new knowledge flows to streams of sameness.

Without intentionally searching out cognitive diversity, we allow conformity of sameness to not only parade itself as the “new” – but enforce uniformity and push lack of variety into going viral, across our platforms and networks.

As we consider this ultra, hyper-connected world and the opportunities for the “new” that it extends, we must remain vigilant towards engaging greater opportunities for cognitive diversity, if we are to keep “sameness” from becoming a viral churn across our connected platforms and networks.

“Society and institutions in general tend to lean toward order and away from chaos.  In the process this stifles disobedience.  It can also stifle creativity, flexibility, and productive change, and in the long run, society’s health and sustainability.  This is true across the board, from academia, to corporations, to governments, to our communities.”  -via Joi Ito and Jeff Howe Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future

 

 

 

Folding Back The “Edges”

“Knowledge flows naturally flourish on the edge.  Why?  Because, by definition, participants on these edges are wrestling with how to match unmet needs with unexploited capabilities and all the uncertainty that implies.  Edge participants therefore focus on ways to innovate and create value by connecting unmet needs with unexploited capabilities and then scaling these opportunities as rapidly as possible.  In the process, they create significant new knowledge.  But there is a problem – this knowledge is not easily accessible.”  -John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Lang Davison The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion

In a time of disruptive disequilibrium brought on by the tension, turbulence and acceleration of change, we find many of our organizations and organizational leaders striving to exert an overall sense of steadiness and equilibrium, a sense of safety and stability; instead of provoking positive disobedience and candor, we look for obedience, agreement and acceptance; instead of stretching into the uncomfortable, we look to the insulated cocoon of the careful and comfortable.

In many ways, the organizational plea is one to be protected and immune from these changes forces that push in and threaten to disturb our current and past ways of thinking and doing…

Unfortunately, too many of today’s leaders see this as their work, their task; to create a haven of safety and security from those turbulent change forces that threaten to disrupt our organizational equilibrium.  But what they fail to understand is that this mindset. of what they see as their work, is really just pandering to the plight and peril of the stasis and status quo, and will end up being the biggest risk of all.

For it is the risk of irrelevance, not the threat of these change forces, that we need to be much more aware of, especially in today’s change world.

To fend off these changes forces we find ourselves becoming more and more wary of “next” practices, so we bury ourselves in “best” practices of the past.  We look to insulate ourselves from the disruptive nature of these new ideas by moving farther and farther back from our organizational edges, where these new ideas and knowledge are often igniting flames of creative destruction that threaten “our way” of doing things.

So, we choose stability over adaptation, control over agility, compliance over creativity, and implementation over innovation.  We look to amplify the known…

We find solace and safety in incrementalism. Engaging linear and predictable processes and structures give us this sense that we’re slowing down the pace of change that clamors at the gates of our organizational borders.  So we find ways to protect and guard  our organizational boundaries, keeping them closed tight to fend off any new ideas, new thinking, or new knowledge that may possibly disrupt “our way” of doing things.  We look to invoke authority and command and control strategies to harness and subdue the budding emergence of the “new.”

Instead of designing our organizations for adaptability, we choose to design them for permanence, in a world dominated by accelerated obsolescence.  And when we do, we find that we are designing our organizations and systems for future irrelevance…

But we can no longer avoid or choose to insulate ourselves from the edges and the emergence of the “new.”

Or as Hagel, Brown and Davison share in The Power of Pull, “As clockspeed increases, companies must continually refresh the sources of their success: their knowledge stocks. This means precipitating and participating in a broader range of knowledge flows, which in turn requires finding people, particularly people on the edge, interacting with them, and building reciprocal relationships with them over time.  Edge players are more likely to introduce us to new insights and to help us more rapidly develop new knowledge stocks.”

Creating organizational idea flow and tapping into the “edges” not only leads to engaging us in new ways thinking and doing, it tends to move us beyond today’s “best” practices to tomorrow’s “next” practices.  In effect, creating organizational relevance for the future and of next steps…

Understanding the profound persistence and resilience needed to not only engage the “new” but to lead from the “edge” will allow today’s leaders to push through the lack of understanding and acceptance that new learning, new ideas new knowledge, and new ways of operating provokes in the status quo.

But just remember, as Richard Pascale shares from his work Surfing the Edge of Chaos, “Species are inherently drawn toward the seeming oasis of stability and equilibrium – and the further they drift toward this destination, the less likely they are to adapt successfully when change is necessary.”

It is at the “edges” not only where new ideas, new thinking and new knowledge are discovered and formed, but where we learn to overcome the “genetic” drift that often entrenches our organizations in stasis, status quo, and eventual irrelevance for the future.

Most organizations tend to push creativity and innovation to the outer edges…creative and innovative leaders not only tap into those edges, they find ways to fold them back into the core.