The famous William Gibson quote
above is generally considered in the context of advanced technologies.
Makes sense, seeing as he is a science fiction writer. But I’d like to
bring the concept down to a more tangible, prosaic level. One that has
value for large organizations.
Specifically, Gibson’s quote is a
good way way to think about innovative practices that are present in a
given ecosystem or community, but which are unknown to most people.
A few months ago, the Boston Globe ran an article titled, The power of positive deviants. It profiled an new way of thinking about innovation, “positive deviance”. What is that?
Positive deviance is an
approach to behavioral and social change. Instead of imposing solutions
from without, the method identifies outliers in a community who,
despite having no special advantages, are doing exceptionally well. By
respecting local ingenuity, proponents say, the approach galvanizes
community members and is often more effective and sustainable than
The article includes an example, in which a authorities were seeking ideas to fight incidents of the MRSA bacteria,
which cling to clothes for days and are thus hard to counteract. In
canvassing hospitals for a solution, researchers came across the
practice of a patient transporter, Jasper Palmer. He would ball up his
hospital gown, and stuff it in his inverted hospital gloves. It turns
out, this is highly effective in stopping the spread of MRSA. His
technique has been widely adopted, and is now called the Palmer method.
See…the future of MRSA control was already here. It was just unevenly distributed.
There are two key concepts in positive deviance:
- Outliers as sources of innovative practices
- The power of a practice that emerges from a community, not one imposed from outside it
While the Boston Globe article
focuses on efforts for improving humanitarian and social problems, the
approach is a useful one to consider in the context of solving tough
problems for any organization.
Which Organizations Benefit?
Well, any organization can benefit from looking for examples of positive deviance to solve problems.
But perhaps the approach is best suited for companies with these qualities:
- Large, with workers distributed geographically
- Many employees engaged in similar tasks in these various locations
The distribution of the workforce
has the effect of letting different ideas propagate independently. Each
person has her own ideas for how to solve different problems that will
inevitably occur. Consider this evolution in the realm of work
practices. Multiple species of practices can emerge, and some are
better suited for long term sustainability than others.
The similarity of activities means
the positive deviances can be sources of value for others. Otherwise,
these outlier practices are only of value to a limited set of peers.
Eliciting Those Positive Deviations
This is the challenge, isn’t it? How
can organizations surface the outlier, positive deviations of
employees? This is a conundrum that has bedeviled the knowledge
management industry for years. People do not simply record all the
things they know and do. It’s not in the flow of their daily work.
There’s no motivation to sift through all the different things they do
Rather, organizations need to go looking for their positive deviants, because they’re out there. Two models exist for this:
- Organizations treat the mining of these positive deviations as a campaign
- Individuals post their call for examples of how others address a problem
The first model is great for
generating a large set of possible solutions to a problem. It leverages
the internal communication infrastructure, and the motivation that
comes when senior managers are backing an initiative. Rewards can be
included in the campaign, increasing the motivation.
But that doesn’t have to be the only
way. Individuals will face problems that colleague have solved
previously, perhaps in an unorthodox way (e.g. the Palmer method for
MRSA). Letting individuals cast a call for ideas is necessary as well.
Don’t make them wait until a full campaign is undertaken.
Crowdsource the solution from one’s peers. With Spigit (disclosure: I work for Spigit)
the process of crowdsourcing for solutions is easy, enriched with
analytics, anchored with workflow, searchable by everybody, and
provides the basis for generating reputation scores and rewards.
The great part of this is that
solutions coming from others in the organization will generally get a
warmer reception than a solution from a consultant. It’s just the
nature of us. We listen to those who face the same challenges we do
first, before someone who doesn’t know the business as well.
Go ahead, find the positive deviants in your organization. Make the future a little more evenly distributed.
(Cross-posted @ the Spigit Blog )