New perspectives – psycho-social evidence for benefits of positive deviance

Jane Lewis and Dr Joanna Wilde ran a very successful workshop for the British Psychological Society in June.  This introduced positive deviance (PD) to a wider audience of accredited occupational and organisational psychologists.

We highlighted the benefits of working in this way at a time when workplaces can feel increasingly pressured and toxic.  True to the principles of positive deviance, it was an interactive session where participants worked on their own cases, mainly linked to staff (and volunteer) engagement, leadership and culture change.  Jane acted as the “expert non-expert” and Joanna commented on the links between our experience and current thinking and theory.  Her review helps to explain why positive deviance does work, and why it is particularly appropriate in the current climate.

The Social Psychology of Organizations: Diagnosing Toxicity and Intervening in the Workplace (Paperback) book cover

Key findings and references are set out in more detail in this download by Joanna pdf download pdf file, and in Joanna’s new book, “The Social Psychology of Organizations, diagnosing toxicity and intervening in the workplace”.   

The four key themes are:

  • Owning the insights
  • Helping people to see things differently
  • Helping people to change direction, and
  • Helping things to make sense

Owning the Insights:

“Ownership not buy in”  is an important principle of PD.  The problem-solving approach overcomes the “not invented here” syndrome by building capability, and opening minds, to find different, multiple kinds of evidence of what already works in situ.  The expert “non-expert” uses their skills to ensure that the work is “bathed in data” and also their professional knowledge to constructively challenge some of the evidence and opinions.

Helps people to see things differently

The “flip” or somersault question used in PD forces a new look at reality.  As Jane Bozarth pointed out (see previous post), we look at what works in the small percentage of cases that have overcome a particular issue already, for example “What happens in the 25% of annual reviews that are deemed to be positive and effective?”  not “What’s going wrong in the 75% of annual reviews that are reported to be unsatisfactory?”

We have found that we need to open up perceptions and view points from the start, before people will let go of hunting for what doesn’t work and become open to alternatives.  This is one of the key contributions that Hidden Insights is adding to the global positive deviance experience, and is essential to challenge bias without threatening personal identity.  This is particularly true where professionals are working with community members, and have very low expectations of what can be achieved without their professional tools and knowledge.  Even if they let go of advising and fixing, their next step is to pass their service users on to another body or individual who will do something similar, rather than try building self-sufficiency.

Helping people change direction

There have been many challenges to the standard, top-down, planned model of change – not least the old chestnut that 70% of change initiatives fail.  Our way of working doesn’t set out to confront change management orthodoxy, but does build on what works – we orchestrate and choreograph engagement and participation in conjunction with the intended audience, then co-create effective interventions, again with representatives of the people who need change.  This works inside-out and bottom-up, and is based on the “big task, small ask” principle where we create the conditions for many people to do something small but important, not by telling them what to do.  By ensuring that what happens is evidenced and monitored, the feedback loop reinforces behaviour change.

Helping things make sense

Storytelling is an important tool in PD, especially stories with numbers.  This goes with the grain of research that shows how narratives affect decisions and memory, and how important these are in developing cultures.  Positive stories and scenarios can be embedded in organisation or community  memory and create cultural resilience, just as much as negative ones create cynicism about an organisation’s ability to change.  Stories work simultaneously at different levels to create connections and strategic persistence.

All of these themes explain how our thinking has developed in terms of training people in using positive deviance, to make the approach simple and non-technical to use, whilst recognising the need to spend time helping to “de-programme” leaders, specialists and managers from the need to tell people what to do and to micro-manage, whilst still using their knowledge to reframe issues and challenge.

We highlighted how the Hidden Insights programme can help leaders to do more with less, building on the hidden, tacit knowledge and skills in their teams.  As such it’s a comprehensive, yet short and easy way to develop adaptive leadership skills and develop talent in the organisation, and a step-by-step practical approach to using positive deviance in practice.  Contact us to learn more about our training.

Sustainable results from hidden solutions

Not business as usual

I read Jane Bozarth’s excellent article on positive deviance (PD) in Learning Solutions Magazine with interest.  She succinctly highlights how PD uncovers hidden solutions and delivers sustainable results.  She points up the differences between PD and business as usual.  She sets out the usual scenario for solving problems:

“Organization has a problem.  Organization brings in “experts” to study the problem, devise a solution, run a pilot (which may mean a training program) and then leave.  Organisation members quickly revert back to old behaviors”.

Jane highlights the possibilities opened up by looking for what works.  A specific tool is the all-important “flip” or “somersault” question:

  • Not “why are staph infections so high across the hospital?” but “why are staph infections lower on the third floor?”
  • Not “why are sales down in regions 6 and 9, but “why are sales up in region 4?”

This helpful introduction highlights how simple the PD concept is, and how there are almost always hidden solutions.   On the face of it, it’s hard to understand why amplifying positive deviance, as practised by the Sternins, isn’t as common as many other improvement initiatives.  It’s about doing more with less, empowering and engaging people.  It spreads behaviours and practices that are already proven to be working, so the only resource needed is the time to find them.  It’s evidence based, teaches a lot about leadership and is fun to do.  What’s not to like?

A different way of leading and managing

A clue lies in Jane Bozarth’s introduction: the role of the expert, all-knowing leader or professional in fixing things.  Power and hierarchy.  The constant cry for more resources.  The immediate demand for cost-cutting, no matter what the longer term consequences.

However, as a recent Care Quality Commission report into an under-performing hospital stated, the problems are often as much about management as they are about money.  So much of an organisation’s success still depends on its people.  However brilliant technology, social media and big data are, they can only support what the organisation does, not HOW it does it.  And more money isn’t always the answer. The under-performing hospital in question has had many millions pumped into it in recent years, a huge redevelopment programme and the opportunity to be the health hub for a big urban area as other hospitals closed.

Positive deviance not only finds “free” solutions and releases other ways of doing more for less, it engages and energises people.  To use PD to best effect, for the success of the organisation and engagement of its people, a manager has to be an expert “non-expert” or team coach.  This is a very different way of working from the usual top-down, expert-driven quality and improvement initiative.  Yet it works very well alongside well-known methods such as Lean, as shown in the Veterans’ Administration Hospitals project that reduced MRSA infections by 63%.  PD delivers low-maintenance, sustainable results because people continue to own and evolve the solutions they find.

Building the right foundations

We’ve found that you have to do preparatory work with leaders and front-line staff, to get going with positive deviance. Leaders learn to listen, and to hold back on fixing things.  They need to challenge constructively and help people to understand all sides to a problem.  Through facilitation, groups learn to value each others’ differences and to believe that there can be solutions and opportunities without the need for financial investment.  They learn that data can be their friend, rather than a stick to hit them with.  Trust is established between groups and useful networks form.

So preparation is vital as part of the set-up of a positive deviance project.  Working with leaders is essential to create the “solution space”and permission to do things differently. Learning happens as part of the project rather than as a bolt-on training programme, and changes mind-sets.   Projects can be facilitated by peers, for peers, or by managers taking an adaptive leadership approach.  Key skills  for all include framing the “flip questions,” looking for and presenting evidence to show solutions work, and being open to there being more than one answer to a problem.  A very specific skill set is used in a kind of treasure hunt for solutions – observation and enquiry.  As well as being essential to uncover the hidden solutions, they are valuable skills in their own right.  They can be applied person-to-person or through social media.

Keeping the faith for sustainable results

However, we’ve noticed leaders lose confidence because the engagement process needs time.  If they don’t get the space to work on the project, front-line staff don’t have the confidence to collect data, to own the issues and their solutions.  If the projects are seen through (depending on the issue, they can be completed in weeks rather than months), solutions are sustainable.  People don’t turn their backs on what they create.

Two teams, with serious operational conflicts, discovered small instances where people had got round the barriers and collaborated.  In a morning, they discovered not only some better ways of working but also how much they could save if they changed behaviour.  They realised that just between the two teams (about 40 people) they could save thousands of pounds a week.   Three years on, they still use what they learned , despite restructuring, job cuts and increased workload, and celebrate joint success (pdf download pdf file.

This special morning, and the implementation of its discoveries, would not have happened without the relationship we had built with key leaders beforehand, and the special style of facilitation that PD requires.  The key thing was the willingness of the two team leaders to allow bottom-up discussion, discovery and design of solutions.

So positive deviance is both a way to achieve sustainable results through people, and a valuable way to learn leadership skills for the future – as long as it is allowed to happen.  Our recent “Changing Mindsets” workshop at the British Psychological Society showed how it can be used for business improvement, leadership development, talent management and culture change.

Our learning in implementing positive deviance in both communities and organisations has been turned into an enhanced process and learning programme.  It includes a useful range of simple tools and techniques for effective facilitation, group coaching and building trust.  In particular, we have evolved an approach to set the right foundations and environment for the work to be successful, to enable these sustainable results to emerge.

This includes support for leaders and professionals to let go (within boundaries) and allow teams and communities to learn.  Sustainable improvements and savings will take time to deliver, but even the short-term results can be astonishing, as seen in the case study above.   This happens especially in community projects,  where the longer-term payback to the public purse is hundreds of thousands of pounds, simply by helping people to help themselves.

So the other key to PD success is to support senior leaders who are not directly involved in the projects to keep the faith, to reinforce the need for measurement and evidence (which people may actively avoid in some cultures),  and wait for good things to happen, and keep happening..




Human management, Hidden Insights and the British Psychological Society

We’re delighted to be sharing a platform with Dr Joanna Wilde on 3rd June at the British Psychological Society’s training centre in London.  We are running a CPD-accredited workshop for practitioners, to demonstrate a practical, evidence-based approach to human management and leadership.

The workshop

It’s an interactive event for leaders, psychologists and organisational design and development specialists.  It shows how to use the positive deviance approach to improve productivity, engagement and well-being in organisations. Click here for the programme, and to book directly with the BPS.

What you will learn about human management

Positive deviance underpins the Hidden Insights way  of working.  It is an inclusive problem-solving method that is based on group coaching. It engages people at all levels in solving their own challenges quickly and within existing systems and resources.  It uncovers and builds on what works and optimises relationships with colleagues, customers and stakeholders.  It’s a very humane and constructive way of working – yet challenges poor practice and negative beliefs.

Joanna connects the approach back to psychological theory.  We’ll be featuring UK case studies run by Hidden Insights, other global examples and introducing some useful group discovery and problem-solving techniques.

Dr Joanna Wilde

Joanna  is on the BPS Board and Governance effectiveness working party.  She co-ordinated the Society’s input to the Francis Report about whJoanna Wilde (1)istle-blowing in the NHS.  She is also on the board of directors for the Council for Work and Health, representing the psychological aspects of well-being and employer involvement  as part of the wider Council agenda.

She is a passionate advocate of human-centred ways to apply evidence and practice know-how to improve well-being and organisational prosperity.

She has recently launched her book on the Social Psychology of Organizations, featuring some controversial views on the potentially toxic impact of performance management and team-building, as well as positive strategies and interventions for improving well-being at work.

She has had 25 years experience in corporate organisational development roles with British Airways, Hewlett Packard, Rio Tinto and Unisys.  She is an Industrial Fellow of Aston University and a director of the Navigate Organization.

For more information about the workshop, and to book directly with the BPS, click here.


Engagement and culture change in Cambridgeshire

We are delighted with the feedback from the learning-by-doing we did over the last year in Cambridgeshire.  People have taken the Hidden Insights concepts of “don’t decide about me, without me” and “acting their way into a new way of thinking” to heart.  They have grown in confidence and created amazing engagement and community action.

You can read more about the Grub Hub in Huntingdon here. Continue reading

More with less? Serious fun at Accent Group

  • “A really good day”
  • “Bang on the brief”
  • “A great chance to mix and have my say”

We were delighted to be asked by Accent Group, the housing association, to facilitate their Eastern Region staff awayday.  We are already working with them, as part of a group of organisations in Cambridgeshire, which is using Hidden Insights as a means of improvinDSCN2299g relationships with, and building resilience in tenants.  This project has also been a great way of starting collaborative projects across organisations – Accent and Fenland District Council are sharing resources in Wisbech.  Using Hidden Insights thinking has attracted more than four times the usual attendance at resident events, again conducted in collaboration with the Ferry Project, Cambridgeshire County Council and Making Money Count. Continue reading

Ownership not buy-in – Hidden Insight of the season

People will take personal responsibility for solving a problem,  completing an action and performing better if they own the solution – a key Hidden Insights principle is “ownership not buy-in”.

Hidden Insights® achieves this through its group coaching approach.  Coaching works with anyone, in organisations, families, or communities.  Coaching is reported by the 2015 CIPD employer survey to be the second most effective learning after learning on the job (which is also a part of Hidden Insights). Continue reading

Emergent OD and the Buurtzorg model – reducing costs and satisfying demand

At the moment the pressure is on for HR and OD professionals to create flexible and responsive organisations, making the most of the trends and technologies available.  In the current economic climate, with productivity only just starting to improve, people have limited time for change projects and organisations are getting flatter, putting a greater load on managers.  So how can this be achieved? Continue reading

Converging ideas about leadership and the front-line

A trend is emerging that is challenging the top-down, “big everything” way of working: first Steve Hilton’s book, “More Human”, about sustainable and humane ways of managing nearly everything, from food to education, adamantly advocates the benefits of things at human scale, and of collaboration.  Hilary Devey, of Dragon’s Den fame, hosted a programme, “Running the Shop”, on Channel 4, which shows that staff do have good ideas and know what their customers want, and can make quick improvements in business performance if allowed to implement their ideas.  Lastly, at a more intellectual level, the recent Oxford Praxis Forum Stimulus Workshop, and celebration of the 50 years of management studies at Oxford both stressed the  need for senior management to act as stewards rather than drivers, to get their staff engaged in taking responsibility for making things better for customers, patients and service users in a fast-moving and complex world. Continue reading

Evolving HR’s role in talent management and organisational agility

There’s a lot of agonising in the HR world at the moment about the apparent decline in HR’s profile, and in particular, its role in the identification and development of talent for the future.  The problems, according to a recent talk by David Clutterbuck at a master-class for senior management, are:

  • Information/factors currently used to identify potential leaders are shown not to be predictive of success
  • The wrong people still rise to the top – the narcissistic leaders, and sometimes those with psychopathic tendencies!
  • Investment in developing diversity is not paying off
  • The underlying thinking is still based on a highly structured, “organisation as machine” metaphor when organisations and the contexts they operate in are highly complex and rapidly changing
  • HR’s favourite tools – competency frameworks, job descriptions, appraisals, hierarchical structures – are not sufficiently flexible for the speed of change and agility an organisation needs, and have been shown not to nurture talent

Continue reading

News from Cambridge

We’ve just had a pilot project extended.  Initial funding from the Cambridgeshire Together for Families programme has brought eleven organisations into a learning programme, to use the Hidden Insights approach to reduce “revolving door” tenancies.  The early stages have created a lot of enthusiasm and support has been extended into the autumn.

Projects are now running in Cambridge City and in Wisbech, bringing together a range of housing associations and charities, including Accent, City Homes Cambridge, Making Money Count (Circle Roddans), Luminus, JobCentre Plus, Abbey People and the YMCA. Continue reading