Positive Deviance: Scaling Internal Innovation

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“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.”

 

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