A few years ago, community workers for the Save the Children organisation, an internationally recognised non governmental organisation or NGO, made a clever observation. Working with communities where children malnutrition was the norm, they discovered that a small group of very poor families were able to nourish their children against any expectation. All families shared the same resources and the same socioeconomic status. Their limitations were the same. The community workers were fascinated by the apparent abnormality of the very small group. What did these mothers do different?
They found out that, in every case of successful anomaly, the mother of the child “was going out to the rice paddies and collecting tiny shrimps and crabs the size of one joint of one finger and adding these to the child’s diet, along with the greens from sweet potato tops. Although readily available and free for the taking, the conventional wisdom held these foods to be inappropriate, or even dangerous, for young children.
Along with the addition of the shrimps/crabs and greens, there were certain other positive deviant practices involving frequency of feeding and quality of care of the child. It was apparent that the use of these foods and practices constituted enough of a difference to produce a well-nourished child”.
“Deviance” and its opposite “conformity” are terms used in social psychology to define levels of adjustments, adaptations or responses to norms, whether in a community, a group or a particular environment. Conformity as mechanism is usually adaptative, that is, it allows us to become accepted in the group or part of it. It creates a sense of belonging whether this is something sought conciosuly or it happens by default.
The word positive associated to deviance brings up some apparent contradictions. How can deviance be positive in the context of norms, following rules or playing by the book? The findings of the Save the Children people suggest that, in any case, ignoring these deviances is foolish. I believe that the applications of this concept to management are enormous. Our organisations are usually designed to follow rules and norms, with plenty processes and systems that one has to adhere to. After all, these process and systems ensure consistency of quality and homogeneity in the way of doing things. There are there for a reason. They have been proven effective in reaching some goals, achieving particular outcomes or providing management with some sort of control.
Conventional wisdom says that you would not run a company without rules, processes, systems and people sticking to them. Although this is obviously something that breeds success in many places, the reality is that, in any organisation, you find people who do not follow the rules or the internal conventional wisdom. Some of them may succeed, other may fail. Some of them may be difficult to manage; others may just be a bit of a pain or not all at all. Management attention is on the ones who follow, on the normative side of the organisation, on the creation of an even more robust system which processes can be followed by anybody and repeated again and again.
What do we benchmark? We benchmark good practices, achievements, cost-effective processes, efficient ways of getting from A to B. We don’t benchmark anomalies, deviations or non conformity. We benchmark the perfection of current reality to make it a far-better-more-of-the-same.
We discard deviations from the norm and we have labels for them: defects, difficult people, anomalies, lack of quality, unconformity, non compliance etc.
The language of conformity, compliance, standard process and systems etc, is pervasive. It has the ability to create two things: a sometimes false sense of homogeneity and control, which is by default associated with good management practice, and blindness and rejection of anything else that doesn’t conform or fit in.
We should pay more attention to the deviants, the ones who have created success from what others in similar circumstances have failed; the ones who didn’t quite follow the rules but cut across bureaucracy and made it; the ones who are “different” and still achieving or even achieving more. What do they have special? Can we learn form them? Can we transfer that learning? Benchmark deviance with the same diligence as you benchmark norms. It pays off.