Organisational Change Management Volume 1

Framework 42 Positive Deviants Within the Organisation

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"...bridging the gap between what is happening and what is possible is what change management is all about. The traditional process of creating organisational change involves digging deep to uncover root causes of problems, hiring experts or importing best practices, and assigning a strong role to leaders as champions of change..."

Richard Pascale et al, 2005

"...somewhere in your organisation, groups of people are already doing things differently and better. To create lasting change, find these areas of positive deviance and fan their flames...... these positive deviants - using individuals on the periphery of their organisations or society who are far removed from the orthodoxies of mainstream change endeavors. These innovators' uncommon practices and behaviors enable them to find a better solutions to problems than others in the communities..."

Richard Pascale et al, 2005

"...the key is to engage the members of the community you want to change in the process of discovery, making them the evangelists of their own conversion experience..."

Richard Pascale et al, 2005

The traditional change efforts a top-down, outside in and deficit based; they focus on fixing what's wrong or not working; they have a reasonable degree of predictability and control during the change initiative. Unintended consequences are rarely anticipated. Once a solution is chosen, the change program is communicated and rolled out through the ranks. In contrast, the positive deviance approach is bottom-up, inside out and asset based; it focuses on change from within the organisation by identifying and leveraging innovators. This approach reduces the social distance that often blocks acceptance.

This approach requires leaders to relinquish their role in the community and involves 4 primary management tasks to sustain attention and ensure progress towards goals once the community has chosen its course of action:

i. management of attention

ii. allocation of scarce resources

iii. reinforcement to sustain the momentum of inquiry

iv. application of score-keeping mechanisms

In addition to organisations such as Hewlett Parckard, Genentech, Merck and Novartis, this framework has been tested successfully in a wide range of situations including

- malnutrition in Mali and Vietnam

- school dropout in rural Argentina

- trafficking of girls in East Java

- the spread of HIV/AIDS in Myanmar

- female circumcision in Egypt

Comparisons between the traditional and deviance approaches

Traditional approach

Positive deviance

Leadership as a path breaker

(primary ownership and momentum for change comes from above)

Leadership as inquiry

(leaders facilitate search; community takes ownership of request for change)

Outside in

(experts identify and disseminate the best practices)

Inside out

(community identifies pre-existing solutions and amplifies them)


(leaders deconstruct common problems and recommend best-practice solutions. Implication: "why aren't you as good as your peers")


(community leverages pre-existing solutions practised by those who succeed against the odds)

Logic driven

(participants think a new way of acting)

Learning driven

(participants act a new way of thinking)

Vulnerable to transplant rejection

(resistance arises from ideas imported or imposed by outsiders)

Open to self-replication

(latent wisdom is tapped within a community to circumvent the social system's reaction)

Flows from problem identification

(best practices are applied to problems defined within the context of existing parameters)

Flow from solution identification to problems solving

(solutions through the discovery of new parameters)

Focus on protagonists

(engages stakeholders who would be conventionally associated with the problem)

Focus on enlarging the network

(identifies stakeholders beyond those directly involved with a problem)

The 6 guideline approach involves

i. making the group the guru

ii. reframing through facts

iii. making it safe to learn

iv. making the problem concrete

v. leveraging social proof

vi. confronting the immediate defence response

Guideline 1 - making the group the guru

Most change management literature emphasizes the importance of champions and leaders. Generally this means shifting the blame and responsibility for fixing the problem to those in authority. Unfortunately this absolves the community of owning the solutions. It is important that problem identification, ownership and action begins in and remains within the community; this includes the understanding that the innovators are members of the same community. Change agents need to work together to discover others of similar mind, ie those who do things differently.

Guideline 2 - reframe through facts

By reframing the problem in a new light by using hard data to confront orthodoxies, status quo thinking, etc, new opportunities can be found

Reframing involves 3 steps:

i) understand the conventional view

ii) look for exceptions to the norm

iii) reframe the problem to focus attention on the exceptions

"...there's value in looking at things in different ways and getting beyond gut feelings to hard facts..."

Richard Pascale et al, 2005

Guideline 3 - making it safe to learn

Status quo thinking is often safer, ie

"...problems often get unresolved because the path to solutions is littered with potential losses and other risks..."

Richard Pascale et al, 2005

Need to acknowledge that thinking differently can upset the status quo. Sometimes a psychological safety net needs to be developed when discussing difficult topics and/or a more indirect or an oblique approach to undiscussable topics is required.

Guideline 4 - making the problem concrete

In most organisations there is a lot of meaningless discourse with no reality checks.

"...a firm grasp of reality obliterates vague assumptions and helps focus attention on what really works. Dealing directly with an uncomfortable truce requires stating it concretely so that there is no way to duck the challenge at hand..."

Richard Pascale et al, 2005

Guideline 5 - leverage social proof

Remember: the old adage that "seeing is believing"

Guidelines 6 - confront defensive responses

Reaction to change comes in the form of accordance, resistance and exceptionalism. If change comes from within the community, it feels natural, ie

"...the trick is to introduce already existing ideas into the mainstream without excessive use of authority. Why use a sledgehammer when a feather will do?..."

Richard Pascale et al, 2005

(source: Richard Pascale et al, 2005)


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