One of the most powerful organizational change methods does not require much support from management—in fact, it could even be hindered by a management mandate. This occurs because often seemingly insignificant changes in behavior can profoundly affect organizational performance. Yet those key, high-leverage behaviors usually cannot be determined by outsiders like management or other experts. Rather, the high-leverage behaviors are discovered by an individual or group through either learning or accident and then spread to others.
The Positive Deviance Approach to Organizational Change
This theory of organizational change underlies an approach called positive deviance. The approach was pioneered by Jerry and Monique Sternin. Positive deviance compares the behaviors of average- and high-performing groups to determine what the high-performing groups do that the average groups do not. The comparison process is done by the groups themselves, so that they are engaged in learning.
An insightful mini-case study is given in the 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Your Company’s Secret Agents,” by Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin. They discuss a situation that occurred at the pharmaceutical company Genentech. In 2003, Genentech had created a drug called Xolair, which was considered a miracle drug for chronic asthma sufferers. Although the drug was superior to competitors, Genentech was unable to meet sales expectations.
An investigation was conducted, and it was discovered that within the sales force of 242 persons, not all were having equally poor results. Rather, two women were having wild success. Unlike the the majority of sales people who relied on making traditional visits to physicians and backing up their claims with data, the two women had a different approach.
The two women guided doctors and nurses through the process of readying the drug for infusion and administering it to patients. They taught administrators how to fill out the specialized paperwork. They pitched the drug’s lifestyle impact and described how children who took Xolair could own pets and participate in outdoor sports. In expanding the horizons of doctors, nurses, and administrators, the two sales people had discovered what armies of Genetech’s market researchers had missed. They were successful because they had morphed into change agents.
Wanting to get the other salespeople to follow the the new approach, Genentech management distributed it out as a best practice for others to follow. Surprisingly, this organizational change approach resulted in disappointment. The other salespeople were broadly not inclined to adopt the change. They felt that the two women were successful not because of their method, but because their situation was different. This was prime example of what is called psychological reactance. This occurs when people resist what they perceive is imposed on them. Consequently, Pascale and Sternin stressed that affected groups should be engaged in learning process, not just be told what to do.
A [change] design that allows a community to learn from its own hidden wisdom is, among other things, respectful. Innovator and adopter share the same DNA. Community members invest sweat equity in discovering the positive deviants, and, in the process, they become partners to change.
What Can You Do?
While we need people to pursue the strategic goals of the company, the dramatic results of positive deviance methods show us that how those goals are accomplished might be better left to the people who are pursuing them. The best methods to accomplish and organizational change toward the company’s strategic direction can arise from the employees themselves. Although it is common to ask,
“Are they doing what I want? Are they doing what management wants?”
We we are often better off asking,
“What are they doing that is working really well? How can we create the conditions for others to discover things that work really well?”