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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Finding The Future Signals In The Chaos

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“Can accelerating technology disrupt our entire system to the point where a fundamental restructuring may be required if prosperity is to continue?”  -Martin Ford Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

For years, in response to the coming future shifts, we’ve continually heard the mantra heralded about that we are getting students ready for jobs that are yet to exist.

A mantra that is changing…

Both in its concerns and in the questions it raises.

And while each age has had its own struggles and anxieties as technology creates new economic and societal upheaval and disruption, many tend to feel that this time may be a bit different.

Issues and challenges of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, outsourcing, globalization, robots, automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning all add into this feeling that it will be very, very different.

Just as getting students ready for an automated future is a very different proposition.

Part of acknowledging the signals emanating from the turbulence of this technological disruption is not only in determining what will be important in the future, but what will stay the same, what will change, and what must be entirely transformed.

In many ways, these shifts will not only disrupt how we work and live, but the entirety of our current organizational and societal operating systems.

Out of this operating systems overhaul, we will need to determine how we best prepare our students, our adults, our organizations, our communities, and our systems to become much more agile and adaptable to these future shifts.

Which becomes our heavy lift for the future…

“We are headed toward a transition that will put enormous stress on both the economy and society. Much of the conventional advice offered to workers and to students who are preparing to enter the workforce is likely to be ineffective. The unfortunate reality is that a great many people will do everything right— at least in terms of pursuing higher education and acquiring skills— and yet will still fail to find a solid foothold in the new economy.”  -Martin Ford Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

Transforming Tension And Disequilibrium Into Breakthrough Experiences

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“Adaptive work is difficult work.  And when it takes the form of an organizational change, it can easily get out of hand and fail.  As you have surely experienced yourself, in a process like this there is disequilibrium and tension, people perceive loss and react in varying ways, different factions emerge and take positions, uncertainty is rampant, plans fail, and experimentation becomes necessary.  Guiding this type of process is highly demanding and requires a wide range of skills.”  -via Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive in a Changing World

We live in a world that is fueled by tension.

There is positive tension.  Negative tension.

Tension that fuels us forward and tension that binds us back.

Tension from the past, tension in the present and tension for the future.

And then there is the tension of change…

A tension stretched taut by the pull of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and the ambiguity that accompanies and amplifies any change effort or initiative.  Pulling on individuals and the organization.  Causing chaos amidst the calm.  Noise in the quiet.  Pulling us out of our insulated silos.  Requiring leaders to seek out the signals reverberating out of these shifts, continually deciphering and determining what these signals are saying and asking what you are going to do about it?

Often leading to even greater tension and disequilibrium.

As the individual and organizational efforts of the change initiative increase, so does the level of chaos and noise being amplified, often diminishing our ability to decipher these signals.  However, it is only in our ability to gain greater awareness and understanding of these signals, that we are able to cascade deeper organizational coherence and clarity amidst those facing the chaos and complexity of the change process.  It is in that awareness and understanding, and the capacity that we choose to create, that we are able to slowly dissipate the turbulence, tension, anxiety and disequilibrium that accompanies these adaptive challenges that come with change.

However, many organizations still choose a command and control strategy to alleviate the tension and disequilibrium brought on by change.  They choose to move farther away from autonomy and capacity-building towards structures focused more on power, control, hierarchy, and linear processes as a way of dealing with the dynamics associated with change.  Hoping to create safety in the midst of chaos, but most often only diminishing the process, leading to greater frustration and dysfunction across and throughout the organization.

To effectively push through this disequilibrium, we have to determine the individual and organizational capacity necessary to loosen and push people through these bands of tension pulled taut, that we may keep our individuals and the organization as a whole from recoiling back to the status quo core of the past.  Rather, we must focus our efforts on using the tension and disequilibrium of change not as a crutch for non-action, but rather as a dynamic force for creating individual and organizational breakthrough experiences, and eventual transformation.

It is only through individual and organizational capacity that these transformational breakthroughs are achieved, and we actually achieve the epiphany of change.  It is in our capacity-building efforts that the tension and disequilibrium wrought on by change is able to be redefined and repurposed for growth and autonomy, rather than politics, power struggles and dysfunctional structures and processes.  It is only in this shift, that change can emerge as a more productive  and transformational process for our individuals and organizations.

“No two change processes are the same, but all share certain patterns.  There is always disequilibrium and tension; people perceive losses and react; different factions emerge and take positions; there is uncertainty; it usually takes more time than expected; not everything works the way it was planned; and experimentation is necessary.”  -via Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive in a Changing World

Drenched In Awareness: Flat-Footed or Future-Facing?

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“Regardless of the industry or circumstances, one forecast has always been right throughout history: technology will advance, it will invariably intersect with other sources of change within society, and trends are the signposts showing us how changes will manifest in real life.”  -via Amy Webb The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream

The signals are all around us…

Dots that are swirling, orbiting, spinning, traveling all around our cognitive spaces; disparate dots just waiting to be connected in novel and new ways to move us forward into the future.  Or as Martin Ford may say, “Lights in the Tunnel.”

The problem is that we struggle to see these signals and dots.

Whether they are hidden in the chaos of our exponentially changing times or we find that they are pushed away by our own mental models and cognitive biases that are often too confining to stretch past the fantastical realities they are inferring…

We fail to interpret what they are saying.

We fail to interpret the coming transformation they are inferring.  We fail to infer the disruptive change and changes they are quietly heralding.  We find ourselves trapped by our own cognitive constraints, unable to imagine and envision a new future that is unfolding right before us because of the trappings of our deeply embedded visions of the past.  So we talk of boxes and thinking outside to them, instead of confronting the mental models that we continue to drag into the future, limiting the signals we recognize and the depth and breadth of dots we are able to connect.

Too often, in these times of chaos and uncertainty…

We spend our time recoiling back into the safety of the past, when we should be stepping out into the opportunity of the future.  When we limit our willingness and ability to connect these disparate dots, to expand our lens into and of the future, the signals become dim and distant, unrecognizable.  Rather, our ability and willingness to push past confining cognitive biases and mental models allows those signals to quiver and resonate in the midst of the turbulence created by this new velocity of change, providing our individuals and organizations with a compass in the midst of the chaos and noise that tends to overwhelm those very same individuals and organizations.  Providing a more progressive, relevant and impactful way forward into this unpredictable future.

Too often we are blindsided by the unknown, as these signals of the emerging future emanating and radiating from that space beyond the known are often weak, unnoticed or even unbelievable.

Artificial intelligence, automation, digitization, globalization, outsourcing, poverty, are all dots sending out various signals for us to interpret in these exponential times.  Harbingers of what is to come; not what will be, but what might be.  We need leaders drenched in awareness, awareness of these signals and dots, of the acceleration of change, and of the exponential shifts they are levying across our systems and organizations.

Shifts that are shaking the very foundations of our societal ecosystems.

In the end, the worst stance is to be flat-footed and motionless, when change and disruption comes a calling, determined to pull the rug out from under you, to have the future forced upon you.  Rather, we need leaders drenched in awareness, connecting dots, searching for signals, willing to intentionally design our way forward in a much more proactive manner.

Creating organizational relevance in a time of accelerated obsolescence.

“The best leaders sense the future in order to compete in the present.”  “Foresight is the beginning of the journey.”  -via Bob Johansen Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present

Intent to Adapt: (Part 2)

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“Everything starts from a problem – but not everyone faces the problem in the same way.”  -via Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive In A Changing World

Mike Tyson used to say that, “Everyone has a plan…until they get punched in the face.”  The reality is, every individual, every organization, is going to get punched in the face at least one time or another.  The problem is, it is happening quicker and more often in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

Change is accelerating, disruption is escalating, even our foundations are shifting…

As Peter Thiel shares in Zero to One, “Big plans for the future have become archaic curiosities.”  And it is not that strategies and plans have suddenly become useless, rather it is in the inability of our individuals and organizations to adapt when our “big plans” get “punched in the face” that often renders them ineffective to the new realities they are facing.

However, the ability of our individuals and organizations to adapt relies heavily on creating the capacity in which to do, so.  But, too often, especially in times of confusion and chaos, when capacity is lacking, and when adaptability and agility is most needed, leaders will turn to authority to fill that capacity gap.  Or as Eichholz shares in Adaptive Capacity, “The disequilibrium exceeded the adaptive capacity.”

In today’s VUCA world, we cannot believe that our individuals and organizations will be spared from the confusion, chaos and disruptions of a changing world and the adaptive challenges that arise within these shifting environments.  Or that the disequilibrium and tension that these environments create will be helped by leaders creating more structures, more rules, more hierarchy, and extending more authority, in fact, the challenges will become more exacerbated.

In fact, we need leaders who are much more engaged in strategic thinking, than strategic planning…

Leaders who are intentional in creating the organizational capacity to deal effectively with the disruption and loss that many of these adaptive challenges pose and impose upon our individuals and organizations.  In times of great upheaval, the organizations that are most effective and remain most relevant don’t turn to more authority, rather they have created the internal capacity that draws on greater levels of autonomy.

When leaders have a deeper awareness of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of today’s world, they understand that any “big plan” has a much greater risk being “punched in the face” at one time or another.  And it is not in if it will happen, but when and how?  Building the ongoing capacity and autonomy of the organization allows for not only greater clarity, adaptability and agility when that “punch” comes, but the ability to carry out the ‘intent’ of those plans in the midst of the chaos and confusion that arise.

So as we carry forward with the work of building greater individual and organizational capacity to better face the adaptive challenges of today and tomorrow, I leave you with these thoughts from Adaptive Capacity by Juan Carlos Eichholz…

“But leadership is difficult to put into practice because it involves challenging people instead of satisfying them, asking questions instead of giving answers, generating disequilibrium and tension instead of providing comfort and safety, allowing differences to emerge instead of pretending that they do not exist, involving people instead of giving them instructions, and, in sum, confronting people with the problem instead of facing the problem by yourself or simply ignoring it.  All of this must be done within a strong containing vessel, one that holds people together while they are living with the complexities and losses of adaptive work.”

 

 

Building Adaptive Capacity: The Rise of The Dilemma

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“The dilemmas of the future will be more grating, more gnawing, and more likely to induce feelings of hopelessness.  Leaders must be able to flip dilemmas around and find the hidden opportunities.  Leaders must avoid oversimplifying or pretending that dilemmas are problems that can be solved.  Dilemma flipping is a skill that leaders will need in order to win in a world dominated by problems that nobody can solve.”  -Bob Johansen Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World

In an age proliferated by the exponential rise of adaptive challenges and unsolvable dilemmas, we still find that our organizational environments and cultures remain awash in a sense of solutionitis.  In the face of these challenges and dilemmas, we see leaders and organizations inevitably switch to choosing veneer answers and short-term solutions, when, in fact, deeper questions and long-term considerations are not only what is needed, but are in their best interest for future relevance in a world aimed at accelerated obsolescence.

Too often we treat these adaptive challenges and dilemmas as problems to be quickly dismissed and solved, we jump to simplicity without gaining a full grasp of their complexity, we shape a solution without diving deeper to determine the depth of the challenge, and we continue to formulate our answers before we truly comprehend whether or not we are asking the right questions.

In a sense, we thrive on this want and need to provide certainty in a time of great uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the more we try to provide this sense of certainty to these challenges, the more we tend to jump into solutionitis mode.  And yet, what we find is that the more we work to engage short-term fixes to these dilemmas we now face, the more we create individual and organizational confusion, frustration, dysfunction and disconnection are created.

Rather, in the midst of these dilemmas and adaptive challenges, we must move from being solution-focused to opportunity-open.  

In the fog of this uncertainty, complexity and even chaos that arrives with these challenges, we must learn to be open to the new opportunities that they create for us and our organizations.  As Bob Johansen shares in Leaders Make the Future, “The challenge for leaders is to flip a dilemma into an opportunity.”  Or, for which he adds, “Dilemma flippers have the ability to make their way through hopelessness into hope.”

Which often starts when leaders building their capacity and ability to more effectively determine whether they are facing a problem, or a dilemma or adaptive challenge.  Understanding the difference between the two and engaging strategies and processes to approach them more effectively can lead to greater individual and organizational clarity and coherence in moving forward into the future.

Google shares that “the difference between a problem and dilemma is that problem is a difficulty that has to be resolved or dealt with while dilemma is a circumstance in which a choice must be made between two or more alternatives that seem equally undesirable.”  In Leaders Make the Future, Bob Johansen adds that “dilemmas of the future have the following characteristics: unsolvable, recurrent, complex and messy, threatening, confusing, puzzling, and potentially positive.”  While, Ronald Heifitz reminds us as we approach this work of dealing with dilemmas is that, “The single biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

In Leaders Make the Future, Ingar Skaug from the Center for Creative Leadership, shares a few techniques in dealing more effectively with dilemmas and complex challenges…

  1. Stand in different places: I can change my point of view by turning the problem upside down.”
  2. Using lenses from other domains: If I am a scientist, I may visualize the dilemma from the point of view of a policymaker.”
  3. Ask powerful questions: I can immerse myself in possible scenarios and “what ifs.”
  4. Foster new knowledge: I can spend time with others who are impacted by this dilemma and understand their point of view.”
  5. Create an innovation journal: It can be public or private way to think through my questions.”
  6. Change the pace of attention: I can change the speed at which I approach the dilemma.”

In the end, greater clarity and coherence is created when we truly understand whether we are facing a problem or an adaptive challenge or dilemma, as well as being able to create the appropriate individual and organizational expectations towards the outcomes we are seeking to each one, which is incredibly important in times of greater uncertainty and complexity.

Which often starts by understanding that what worked in the past will not necessarily work in the future…and may just be the first step in understanding this tremendous and exponential shift from technical problems to a world now awash in dilemmas and adaptive challenges.

“Making the future starts with listening and making sense.”  -Bob Johansen Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World

The Hive Mind: Moving Past Conformity To Greater Capacity And Collective Intelligence

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“The speed and interdependence of the modern environment create complexity.  Coupling shared consciousness and empowered execution creates an adaptable organization able to react to complex problems.”  -via Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement For A Complex World

We live in a time when we are truly seeing the importance of greater organizational adaptability and overall agility to not only parallel pace the turbulent pace of change, but to hold onto some semblance of relevance in a world that is bent on discontinuity and the speed of next.

The greatest risk in our modern world is often our inability or unwillingness to take a risk.  It is this type of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment that not only necessitates, but requires an enhanced ability to work more effectively in team settings, collaborate at a much higher and efficient level, as wells as create and utilize more expansive internal and external networks to leverage greater learning and idea flow throughout the organization, at all levels.

Especially if the concept of continuous improvement is our focus…

We can no longer entrench ourselves in the successes of the past, mire ourselves in outdated strategies, practices, processes and structures, or allow the overwhelming pace and speed of change to stagnate us in decision paralysis, especially if we are to remain relevant to the exponential shifts that are occurring across the entirety of our societal ecosystem.

The disruptions we are witnessing, driven by this technological transformation, are emerging not as events…but rather, as daily occurrences.

As is shared in Team of Teams, “An organization should empower its people, but only after it has done the heavy lifting of creating shared consciousness.”  Unfortunately, too many organizations err too far on one side or the other: they either provide autonomy without creating the capacity to fully utilize that autonomy, or they build up individual and organizational capacity and fail to provide the autonomy or empower their people effectively.  Both of which end in frustration at all levels of the organization, doing little to enhance individual or organizational adaptability or agility.

Today’s leaders need to look to ways to not only engage the collective intelligence that resides in an organization, but amplify that “shared consciousness” towards greater collective capacity in an environment that empowers people to make better decisions as they adapt to the complex conditions they face on a daily basis.

Thomas Seeley, Professor at Cornell University, provides a five ways (via Wired and HBR) we can tap into this “hive mind” for enhancing greater collective intelligence in our teams and organizations:

  • Create groups with mutual respect, shared interests and foster mutual respect.
  • Minimize the leaders influence on group thinking. 
  • Seek and explore diverse solutions to the problem, to maximize the group’s likelihood of uncovering an excellent option.
  • Aggregate the group’s knowledge through frank debate.
  • Use quorum responses for speed, cohesion, and accuracy, balancing interdependence and independence. 

Our ability to tap more effectively into the knowledge and ideas that exist within our teams, groups and networks will allow us to create deeper and more expansive collective capacity that will enhance our ability to not only amplify this organizational idea flow, but empower our people to adapt to this new knowledge with the autonomy to implement and utilize ideas that improve an organization’s ability to work towards and emerge more effectively as a culture of continuous improvement.