Positive Deviance Approach:
Internal or external? Deciding whether to find a change agent within or external to an organization is probably the greatest debate when it comes to change management. Change management doesn’t have to be reserved for individual organizations — it can be used to effect change to solve societal problems as well. According to management theorists Richard T. Pascale and Jerry Sternin, the best change agents to combat socioeconomic issues are people, who operating against the same kind of obstacles as all employees of an organization, are somehow still able to succeed.9 Think about those people who against all odds, have a happy smile on their face and manage to be innovative with limited resources — these are the people that Pascale and Sternin identify as ingenious sources of change.9
Pascale and Sternin suggest that looking for existing success within an organization, instead of looking for external change agents that can bring success into an organization, is more likely to mobilize change as members of the organization are involved in their own process of change. Pascale and Sternin call these anomalies, who thrive even when an organization is failing, “positive deviants”: people who go against the grain and deviate from a company’s usual processes and structures, but in a way that contributes to the company’s overall success. As their change management theory is based on positive deviants, it would follow that they call it the positive deviance approach.9
Over 14 years, Pascale and Sternin studied some of the biggest problems occurring worldwide: malnutrition in Mali and Vietnam, high dropout rates in rural schools in Argentina, trafficking of young girls in East Java, the spread of AIDS in Myanmar, and the unfortunately widely practiced female circumcision in Egypt. They examined what people and what groups prevailed against these issues. Based on their inductive research, they came up with a six-step model for change:9
- Make the group the guru
While leaders are important in mobilizing change, Pascale and Sternin found that the voices of the group need to be heard and need to be involved in change management. Otherwise, they are absolved from responsibility and do not connect their own behaviors to the overall success of their organization.
- Reframe through facts
When emotions get involved, people can get defensive as they feel as though they are being blamed for the failure of an organization. Moreover, when you continue to look at a problem through the same language and frame of mind, it is harder to come up with new, innovative solutions.
- Make it safe to learn
We are creatures of habit and feel a sense of familiarity when maintaining the status quo. Change agents therefore need to create a space where individuals feel comfortable adapting and changing their behavior, even if they aren’t successful to begin with.
- Make the problem concrete
Communication is key. Individuals need to clearly understand the problem at hand before they can begin to tackle it.
- Leverage social proof
People want reassurance by seeing evidence that the new way of doing something will actually lead to success. Hearing about others’ positive experience with change can make people feel more open to the idea.
- Confound the immune defense response
Every action has a reaction — so agents of change should anticipate and prepare for that. Since people often react negatively to outside change, finding people within an organization or a geographic location that do things differently can make change an easier pill for people to swallow.
Essentially, Pascale and Sternin hypothesize that for societal change to occur, role reversals are vital: “experts become learners, teachers become students, and leaders become followers.”9