I have just finished The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin) a book I have been waiting for some time to come out. I am very glad to say the wait has been well worth it.
Positive deviance has received a lot of attention since the concept was laid out in a series of articles way back in 2000 – one in the Harvard Business Review and the other in Fast Company. The concept has recently received a new boost since it was covered in both Influencer: the Power to Change Anything and by Chip and Dan Heath (where they called them ‘bright spots’) in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.
Positive deviance is based on the observation that in every community or organisation, there are certain individuals or groups (the ‘positive deviants’ or ‘bright spots’), whose uncommon but successful behaviours enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers. Positive deviance identifies these individuals or groups, who have access to exactly the same resources and face the same challenges and obstacles as their peers, and examines their behaviours and attitudes, which help them avoid problems that plague the rest of their community.
The concept of positive deviance is therefore relatively simple. It involves the identification of people who manage to thrive in a situation where most fail; figuring out what those people are doing that is different from the majority; and then getting everyone to engage in the same actions, thereby solving the problem. Sounds simple enough right? The book shows the challenges encountered in trying to use positive deviance to make a difference to a wide range of seemingly intractable problems.
The book is based around six in-depth case studies (a chapter each) on the use of positive deviance to address childhood malnutrition in Vietnam, stopping female circumcision in Egypt, reducing hospital infection rates in the US, reducing infant mortality in Pakistan, boosting sales within the pharmaceutical firm Merck, and helping reintegrate girl soldiers in Uganda.
Each of these chapters is an in-depth analysis of the power and limitations of positive deviance and how they have learnt and adapted the approach as they have gone along. These case studies really bring to life the context, situation and challenges they faced in each scenario. They are detailed, have a lot of information in them, and I've gone back and re-read most of them a number of times, and each time something new has jumped off the page for me.
Some of the key lessons I've taken, or had reinforced, from these case studies include:
1. We focus too much on the ‘what’, and not enough on the ‘how’.
We are drawn to the 'technical' stuff – the 'what', the specific practices and tools that make the individual positive deviants successful;
“That's the easy part – and only 20 percent of the work. What matters far more is the 'how' – the very particular journey that each community must engage in to mobilize itself, …discover its latent wisdom, and put this wisdom into practice.” This point really made me think about the number of articles I have articles about positive deviance, and how the vast majority of them focused on the ‘what’ the solution – not on the ‘how’ the solution was found and integrated into a community – from my experience the hard stuff.2. The danger we bring as ‘experts’ in the change process:
As the authors say: “The greatest barrier to the success of positive deviance approach comes not from the members of the community themselves but from the “experts” who seek to help them...” There is fantastic story of how a suggestion around the use of tongs for Fried Chicken fundamentally changed an expert’s view on how to deal with, and beat, MRSA
3. Creating compelling and concrete portrayals of the problem at hand.
I absolutely love the story of using chocolate pudding to bring to life MRSA and its impacts in the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh
4. Change starts with changing practices
The conventional wisdom is that knowledge changes attitudes and attitudes change practice. Positive deviance reverses that. It starts with changing practice. As people see that changes make a difference, their attitude changes and they internalise the knowledge.
As the authors say; “its easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting… Once positive deviance behaviours have been discovered, the design must provide those who seek to learn with both the opportunity and the means to practice the new behaviour. A focus on practice rather than knowledge has proven to be a key element in bringing about lasting behavioural change...”
5. Use Deliberate Practice to practice the new behaviour
There is a lovely sidebar headed ‘choreographed conversations’ about training positive deviance participants in Egypt to start conversations around female circumcision. It is a great example of some of the key elements of deliberate practice.
6. Positive deviance is not the same as ‘Best Practice’
What comes out of the positive deviance process should not be confused with ‘best practices’ that we all are familiar with in our organisations. ‘Best Practices’ are typically identified by those at the top and then presented to everyone else for adoption. Positive deviance, on the other hand, is based on discovery by the practitioners themselves, which promotes buy in, acceptance, and change.
The book finishes with some absolute nuggets in how to undertake positive deviance work in a section called the ‘Basic Field Guide to Positive Deviance’. It provides a step by step guide (as much as you can within a process as fluid as that of positive deviance) on the key activities within a positive deviance initiative, as well as some really practical tips they have picked up during all of their work. My favourite one is; “Let silence speak! (Pause for twenty seconds after asking a question. That’s long enough to sing happy birthday!). Try it, you’ll be amazed how long twenty seconds actually is!
Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed The Power of Positive Deviance (http://tinyurl.com/2vykgaz). It is detailed, it’s in-depth, and provides a huge amount of information about positive deviance and the challenges to apply it to solve real world problems. It did take some effort in parts to relate the chapters back to my world. Not always easy to link stopping female circumcision in Egypt with and the challenges that I face in creating change within organizations, but the links and the lessons are there.
Lastly, a word of advice. If you want to easily understand the concepts and principles of positive deviance and get excited about it and how it has been used – start with Influencer (http://tinyurl.com/yuvg54) and Switch (http://tinyurl.com/37bnsoz). If you need to get senior stakeholders and sponsors excited about the concept, do the same. If you then want to try and use positive deviance in making a difference to the challenges you face, read The Power of Positive Deviance (http://tinyurl.com/2vykgaz).
About the authors:
Richard Pascale is an academic at Oxford University, and author of numerous books including Surfing the Edge of Chaos (http://tinyurl.com/334ceb3). Jerry Sternin was the world's leading expert in the application of positive deviance before his death in December, 2008. Monique Sternin has been an equal partner in these efforts and now heads the Positive Deviance Institute (http://tinyurl.com/kmqjb9) at Tufts University.
Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith
I’m often the technology steward for communities of practice (CoP). I create the Ning spaces and configure ‘em, I setup the email lists, I work out whether we should have a wiki or a blog or a discussion forum or some other combination of communication technologies. As you can see I’m quite a geek: I really do love it.
And whenever I get stuck I’ll contact my friends at CPSquare: Etienne, Nancy and John. And while I know they all have a deep understanding of CoPs I tend to ask Etienne the theory questions, Nancy the technology questions and John the group dynamics questions. Together they are a formidable team. Sadly I think their new book, Digital Habitats, will give them strong cause to suggest I should RTFM: Read The Flipping Manual.
Digital Habitats (DH) has a single goal: to help the reader understand the role of technology steward in cultivating a community of practice: what is it, why you would do it, are you are cut out for it, how to do it and where to find help. But it is not a shoppers guide nor a roadmap for technology selection.
There is a lovely photo of Etienne, Nancy and John in the preface and I feel that reading DH is like have a friendly conversation with them on a sunny balcony. They provide the context, a little theory, then lots of practical tips supported by real life stories to ground it and make it memorable.
For me there are three ideas in this book I have already put into practice with great effect.
Experience shows us that all know that communities of practice are different, and sometimes poles apart. DH introduces the idea of community orientations to help us understand where the emphasis might lie and therefore what technologies make most sense.
There are 9 orientations: meetings, open-ended conversations, projects, content, access to expertise, relationships, individual participation, community participation, serving a context. With my engineering communities, for example, I’ve asked the members where they see their current orientation and then ask them to identify where they would like to be. A community might start off very content focussed but realise that the real benefits will come from providing access to expertise. By understanding this orientation gap the technology steward can start introducing tools to facilitate the future orientation needs.
The second idea I find useful is how my friends (I was going to say ‘the authors’ but it didn’t feel right) describe the range of activities a community might be engaged in. The axis range from informal to formal and learning from to learning with. This diagram helps me ensure I’m thinking about the full range of possibilities when helping communities members design their CoP.
DH envisages three types of readers: deep divers, attentive practitioners and just do it-ers. The just do it-ers are directed to chapter 10 which contains an action notebook. It is a series of checklists to help you think about the role of the technology steward. What I love about chapter 10 is that I can jump in and start learning about the role by doing things and then come back to the descriptions contained in the rest of the book when it is more meaningful for me. DH makes the job of finding the relevant descriptions in the other chapters easy through a multitude of cross-links from chapter 10 to the relevant book section.
There are very few practical community of practice books available (I can think of 3 others) and Etienne has already had a hand in writing one of them. So Digital Habitats is a valuable addition to this exclusive club. It’s highly readable and practical and will definitely help make a difference to the quality of your technology support for your community of practice.
Late last year, a company approached us on the topic of employee engagement. They’d received the results of their biannual engagement survey and, as with previous years, realised that the data pointed them to strengths and potential weaknesses but didn't help understand what was really going on, or what to do about it. The data might show that 63% of staff agreed or strongly agreed with the statement 'I am proud to work for this company' and this might be down 6% from the previous survey. On its own however, the data doesn't help with the question "what does this mean and what should be done? "
Narrative approaches are excellent for exploring these sorts of issues and helping organisations find out what is really going on, and what actions they can take to reinforce things that are going well, and improving things that need work. The survey data is vital 'targeting information' but on its own it is an insufficient basis for planning. Thus, exploring employee engagement is a natural marriage of traditional approaches such as surveys and the emerging practice of narrative.
Our approach to staff engagement looks like this:
- Employee engagement surveys often focus on areas such as: do people say positive or negative things about the organisation; their intent to stay with the company; and whether they are motivated to strive to do the best they can for the company. In preparing for the narrative project, the survey data is examined to identify the themes to be explored, the geographic or structural areas to focus on and the people to involve in the project. Key stakeholders are also asked for their views on the survey results and the things that are of most concern or surprise to them.
- We use anecdote circles during the 'discovery phase' of these projects to collect a large number of examples (anecdotes) of how staff at all levels in the organisation experience issues on a day-to-day basis. The anecdote circles are an intervention in themselves as they get groups of people sharing their experiences; people value the opportunity to be listened to and participants learn from each other about how things get done. Recently, during an anecdote circle, a participant related how he received a call early one morning from his manager asking if he’d heard about the severe storm warning for his area (he hadn't). The manager was worried about him driving to work in the storm and requested that he work from home that day. The guy telling the story was really impressed by the phone call. This was a great example of how small actions can really help build employee engagement.
- In the sensemaking phase a significant and diverse groups of influencers are exposed to a cross-section of the collected anecdotes and are facilitated to engage in dialogue with each other to identify issues and themes regarding the current situation. The idea of sensemaking is to develop a rich and common understanding among these influencers of the current situation and its history. Exposure to the anecdotes provides participants with insights into what really goes on in the organisation; this can be quite confronting at times. Nonetheless, sensemaking is a vital step as the individual and collective understand it provides is the springboard for deciding what action to take. The sensemaking workshop takes between 4 hours to a full day and one of its valuable side effects is that individuals will often change (deliberately or sub-consciously) their behaviour back in the workplace as a result of the new understanding they’ve developed. This is an important step as one of the key actions to improve staff engagement is to 'stop doing things that piss staff off.'
- Complex problems cannot be 'solved' in any traditional sense and the way to make progress is to try things and see what happens. Using the deep understanding developed during the sensemaking phase, we involve the influencers in identifying the actions that can be taken to move the situation in a desirable direction. Our approach to this stage (which we call initiative design) is strongly influenced by the characteristics of complex problems meaning we encourage the organisation to identify lots of small scale actions that can be implemented at an individual or team level, based on the knowledge that with complex problems, little things can make a big difference. We also encourage the development of a 'continual improvement process' that aims to get these changes embedded in the fabric of the organisation.
- The final stage is to monitor what happens as a result of the actions taken - reinforcing the patterns that are beneficial and disrupting the ones that aren't. This is achieved through the embedding process developed during sensemaking and by using techniques such as most significant change. A planned monitoring regime is important as it helps detect changes - it also works as an incentive to implement the actions identified during intervention design
Since the initial approach, several other unrelated opportunities have emerged to work with companies to explore their employee engagement outcomes. Our extensive work in leadership/management development also has a strong link to employee engagement (as the main roles of a manager can be summarised as 'driving performance' and 'building engagement'). It looks like employee engagement is a growing area for us to apply narrative approaches.
Last year I wrote about how the skill to apologize will become even more valuable as the world get even more complex and speedy. Things will go wrong.
Well it looks like some books are being published on the topic. Here's what Tom Peters has discovered.
In What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, Marshall Goldsmith proclaims: "I regard apologizing as the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make. It is the centerpiece of my work with executives who want to get better."
All I can add is:
I believe that skill at Apologizing is nothing short of a "strategic competence"!
"Strategic competence"? Absolutely! Customers lost for want of a timely and sincere "I'm sorry. My fault" number in the billions, from restaurant diners to aircraft engine purchasers.
And now there's an entire book on the topic arriving May 1, Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, by John Kador.
Read a whole book on the topic?
In addition to being an excellent "how to" guide, the book also captures hard evidence. For example, with a new policy on apologies, Toro, the lawn mower folks, reduced the average cost of a claim from $115,000 in 1991 to $35,000 in 2008—and the company hasn't been to trial since 1994. The VA hospital in Lexington, Massachusetts, developed an astonishing approach to apologizing for errors (forthcoming—even when no patient request or claim was made). In 2000, the overall mean VA system malpractice settlement was $413,000. The Lexington VA hospital settlement # was $36,000—and there were far fewer per patient claims to begin with.
To paraphrase Annette Simmons, "People wont listen to you until they know who you are and what you want." And one of the best ways to introduce yourself and answer these two questions is to tell a story that reveals something about your character and experience.
The challenge for many people, however, is to find and tell a story that doesn't sound like you are just blowing your own trumpet. One approach is to take the spotlight off yourself and make someone else the lead. You can then play the supporting role.
When I introduce myself to a new audience I often tell the story of how I got started in storytelling by meeting Dave Snowden. Dave is a world leader in knowledge management and narrative techniques and is an impressive speaker and storyteller.
At this point you might want to have a look at this video where I tell the story of how I met Dave. After you've watched the video, and before you read on, please jot down what you inferred about me after hearing the story and pop your answer in the comments. This will help illustrate a key point to this approach.
For those of you that didn't watch the video, here's the basic plot. Dave comes to Canberra and presents at a seminar I organise. He captivates the audience for the whole day with stories and new ways of seeing the world. I'm so taken with the performance that I resolve to do similar work one day and that night write a story and send it to Dave. He admonishes me for missing the whole point of his work, which is to help organisations make sense of their own stories, not to craft stories. We become friends and I join to lead his research centre on complexity in Australia and New Zealand. Then I leave IBM to set up Anecdote in 2004.
So Dave is front and centre in this story. He is the star but I play a significant supporting role.
When I ask the participants of our storytelling for business leaders workshops (which I'm giving in London in June) about what they infer about me after hearing this story (I tell the story at the beginning of the day and ask for their feedback in the afternoon), they say the following:
- you are passionate about storytelling
- you are willing to take risks
- you have large organisation experience
- you've worked for a highly respected company
- you are confident to share your mistakes
- you are experienced in storytelling
I never get the sense that they think I'm a poser (mind you, that might not be saying). To the contrary, it feels like we make a connection quickly and the workshop is off to a good start.
So think about those times when you'd lent a helping hand, where you'd help create the conditions for others to succeed, and tell these stories to introduce yourself and build rapport. These stories speak volumes about who you are, what drives you and they reveal your character; the pre-requisites for trusting collaborations.
To change the way we work we need to change our mental models, and that requires insight.
In The Neuroscience of Leadership David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz describe how our improved understanding of the brain is helping to reorient how we design organisational change initiatives.
The article recommends leaders create situations where their people get a new insight into how they view things: what is the dominant mental model?
One of the most effective technique to help create this insight is archetype extraction. It involves collecting anecdotes from people in the organisation on a theme such as customer service and extracting the archetypes from the many stories.
An archetype is a embodiment of the organisation's culture in the form of a complex yet familiar character. An archetype is usually partly good and partly bad; a complex mix of traits. Not to be confused with a stereotype, which is typically an oversimplification based on simple categorisation or role: "Oh, he's a librarian."
We take these anecdotes into a workshop of 10-20 thought leaders and influencers who could benefit from an alternative perspective.
The workshop participants identify the characters and their character traits from the collected anecdotes on customer service and using a facilitation process they morph into the archetypes, which are often drawn by a cartoonist for greater visual impact.
The cartoons in the post depict some of the archetypes that illustrated the culture of a large Australia organisation. Once the archetypes are identified people can then use them to discuss some of the un-discussables without getting personal.
Most importantly the participants will have obtain a new insight on how the organisation views itself or another group.