Your team needs disrupters, rebels, challengers, and deviants to help it evolve and survive. That’s the main premise of my earlier article on Why The Highest Performing Teams Always Fail Over Time. Here we explore how to get more positive deviation, drawing from Andrew Benedict-Nelson and Jeff Leitner’s book “See Think Solve” on how to solve tough societal problems.

In his talks, Leitner describes culture as the unwritten rules and group expectations about what we should and shouldn’t do. This is close to Seth Godin’s “People like us do things like this.” Leitner then goes on to suggest that unwritten rules are:

    • Reinforced by social cues.
    • More powerful than written rules.
    • Virtually invisible.
    • Insurmountable obstacles to change.

He describes four ways to deal with unwritten rules and social norms. The wrong way is to try to change them with new written rules. The easy way is not to try to change them at all and just walk away. The intermediate way is to go around them with other changes. The advanced way is to prompt and reward positive deviation.

Benedict-Nelson and Leitner’s main premises are:

  1. Deviant behavior can subvert the social norms – informal, unspoken rules – preventing you from solving problems.
  2. Every tough problem is held in place by one or more problematic social norms.
  3. See the actors, history, limits, future, configuration, and parthood, then think about norms and deviance, before deviating from the norm to solve the problem.

Some definitions:

  • Actors are the people involved in problems – directly, influencing or not.
  • History is the stories people tell – true, false or nonsense.
  • Limits are explicit rules and laws that influence how people behave.
  • Future is the set of beliefs people have about what is likely, possible or impossible.
  • Configuration is labels or categories people use – whether or not they actually make sense.
  • Parthood is how your problems relate to other problems through shared actors, settings, or resources.
  • Norms are the informal, unspoken rules that really explain what’s going on.
  • Deviance is an existing or new behavior outside the norms.

Deviance can be positive or negative, evolutionary or revolutionary, unintentional or deliberate.

Positive deviations move you in desired directions where negative deviations do the opposite. Evolutionary deviations are incremental, where revolutionary deviations are major step changes. Unintentional deviations happen without foresight or planning as opposed to planned, deliberate deviations. You want positive deviations whether they are evolutionary, revolutionary, unintentional or deliberate.

How to get more positive deviance

Recall the ABCs of behavior modification: Antecedents, Behaviors, Consequences. People do things because antecedents prompt them. They do them again because of the balance of consequences: rewarding or punishing desirable or undesirable behavior.

To get more positive deviation, start by prompting it. Hire for differential strengths to get people on your team who can do different things better than can your existing team members. Hire for differential preferences to nudge your culture in a new direction. Then explicitly invite people to challenge existing norms.

It’s all for naught if you don’t change the balance of consequences as well.

Imagine I’m standing next to you and ask you to shake my hand. You do. I look you in the eye, smile, and say thank you. If I then ask you to shake my hand again, you likely will.

You shake my hand both times because I ask you as an antecedent. You shake my hand the second time partly because the consequences of the first handshake are positive. But, if I take your hand and then punch you in the face, you are less inclined to shake my hand again.

If you want positive change, you must dial up the positive consequences and dial down the negative consequences of desired behaviors, and do the opposite for undesired behavior. Stop punching people in the face for doing things you want them to do – especially when it comes to positive changes that violate existing norms. And make sure others don’t punish your deviants for doing things differently.

Boss comes by subordinate’s desk holding a memo. “Did I ask you to write this?” “No.” Boss puts the memo in the subordinate’s trash bin, effectively punching him in the face for thinking on his own.

Too many people get shunned for working harder or smarter or going an extra mile for an internal or external customer by others thinking they are being made to look bad or feeling threatened in some way. Be explicit about the need for deviance and apply the ABCs to behaviors supporting or hindering that deviance as well as to the deviance itself.