What’s equally striking is how difficult organizations are finding it to embed these qualities and behaviors in their people. That’s because the primary obstacle is invisible: the internal resistance that all human beings experience, often unconsciously, when they’re asked to make a significant change. Cognitively, it shows up as mindset — fixed beliefs and assumptions about what will make us successful and what won’t. Emotionally, it usually takes the form of fear.
They explore the dualities involved. But if people have been trained to follow the rules that are deeply embedded in the company’s DNA, how are they supposed to innovate, which by definition means challenging assumptions, breaking rules, and remaking things? If a company’s leaders want more agility, that suggests agility is scarce, perhaps because it has been ruled out by culture or consensus. Likewise collaboration and boldness.
They go on to suggest some useful ideas:
- Embrace intermittent discomfort.
- Focus first on building the muscle of self-observation, individually, and collectively across the organization.
- Design small, time-limited tests of the assumptions you hold about the negative consequences you imagine if you build a specific new behavior.
But they fail to mention what has been found in many situations where deep resistance has blocked change efforts. Instead of trying to get people to adopt new behaviors, seek out those that are already showing the new behaviors you want – the positive deviants
. I’ve written about this concept before, in Cultural change is really complex contagion
I recently wrote about ‘positive deviants’ playing a key role in cultural change (see How ‘positive deviants’ help a culture change itself)
. Positive deviants are not perverts: they are members of a community that already display some set of desired characteristics when most of the other members do not. In that earlier post, I recounted the story of how MRSA — the drug resistant strain of staph infection that plagues many hospitals — was stamped out at a Pittsburgh hospital. The technique was to have the community identify those positive deviants that were already displaying behaviors likely to decrease the spread of MRSA, and then put those deviants into a role of disseminating their practices, so that others could try to adopt them personally. In the Pittsburgh hospital, the MRSA infection rate fell by more than half in less than six months.
The premise behind positive deviant-based innovation is that you can find insiders approximating the behaviors needed for a cultural change, and the community can work within itself to spread those behaviors, and find new deviants, and to make the change collectively. It doesn’t require outsiders, except to bring and spread the idea of positive deviancy.
As usual, I favor moving past anecdotal pep talks, and dig into some actual science to drive the advice I offer. No matter how sensible Schwartz and Pines’ suggestions are, I think the MRSA example has more to offer. (And for those who want more science, read further in that post and soak up some of the ‘cultural contagion’ discussion. It’s pertinent and equally general.)