Positive Deviance The importance of the maverick in Organizational Change.

Based on the book 'Digital Learning in Organizations,' by Steve Wheeler.

In every organization, there are those that prevent innovation.

...and there is usually someone who is doing things differently, swimming against the tide, taking risks.

Are you the odd one out?
Positive Deviance is the observation that in any context, certain individuals confronting similar challenges, constraints, and resource deprivations to their peers, will nonetheless employ uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies which enable them to find better solutions (Sternin & Sternin, 2010).

Perhaps they are bending or subverting the organization’s ‘rules’ and conventions, or simply developing new ways to achieve their goals, but they are certainly getting the job done.

Think Different.

Positive deviants do so usually because they cannot see how they can do what they need to do within the confines of specific rules.

People change faster than organizations. As a collective, an organization naturally moves towards order and convention. However, in the VUCA environment of today, constant innovation and change is the new convention.

Positive Deviancy attracts a range of responses, depending on where a company is located on the spectrum from highly conservative to openly progressive.

In a conservative environment, positive deviants are seen as trouble-makers and disruptive. They are tolerated because they get results, however, they face significant opposition, and may eventually leave out of pure frustration. Or they get forced out.

Follow the maverick.
Their innovative ways of working are usually not encouraged, and even though it proves effective, others continue with the old, ineffective process.

Such organizations are characterized by the statement:

"That is just how things are done here."

...when the positive deviant asks about issues or problems that they face.

Status Quo.

Progressive organisations, on the other hand, encourage employees to challenge convention and innovate. It is built into whatever they do.

Some organizations are in-between both phases, and there can be a lot of disruption and chaos.

Which way?
In an age of change and disruption, organizations seek people who are critical thinkers, not blind followers.

Steve Jobs once remarked that he didn’t hire smart people so he could tell them what to do. He hired smart people so they could tell him what to do (Rafati, 2018).

Organizations would now be smart to consider how they can encourage creative freedom and provide the latitude for individual expression in the workplace.
sui generis.

Trojan Mice.

Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo can work quietly and systematically out of view, particularly if their actions run counter to the rules or conventions of the organization.

The changes they foment may be small and seemingly insignificant, but gradually such minor changes can mount up. Peter Fryer calls these small incremental changes ‘Trojan mice’.

"Trojan mice, on the other hand, are small, well-focused changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way."

They are small enough to be understood and owned by all concerned but their effects can be far-reaching. Collectively a few Trojan mice will change more than one Trojan horse ever could.
Positive deviants are inside the company, can see the issues and challenges up close, are uncomfortable with the status quo and decide to take action based on their intuition and inside knowledge of the company.

Positive deviants do not go against the tide with the intention to deliberately undermine or subvert.

They choose an alternative approach because they can see no way to work for the general benefit of the company other than by bending the rules, or they find alternative routes to achieve their aims.

Do you know any positive deviants?

(are you one?)

Created By
Jeremy Francis


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