Letting go of habit and tradition – constructive rebellion?

Change leaders know that to succeed, they have to enable people to let go of what has been.  This feels scary, and to do this, we sometimes turn to alternative role models.  This can in turn feel really risky for leaders.

In positive deviance, change is created by finding what already works and spreading it.  Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino thinks of “positive deviants” as successful non-conformists.  Her “aha” moment came when she saw a recipe book that challenged the rules of Italian cooking and asked – “why is it that we always cook that dish in this way?”  The book contained recipes such as “the crunchy part of lasagne” that made more of the best bits!

You can learn more about Francesca’s journey of enlightenment in her book.  She discusses h"Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life" by Francesca Ginoow what she learns applies in management and leadership.  Finding and harnessing those who break the rules that hold people back, and being able to let go as a leader, enables all of us to lead a more vital, engaged and fulfilling life.


Having personally recently spent time at the front line of a very successful, but traditional organisation, I think you’d have to be really brave to sell this to some management boards.

I am always surprised at how much possibility exists of making really positive change without breaking the “rules” – written and unwritten.  It’s often about bending them a bit, using data and stories to challenge them.  Also it’s not about holding up individuals as heroes or rebels – in many working environments and cultures that creates resentment.  However, most people are doing some things better than their peers, and showing a different take on the current reality.  We’ve seen great examples:

  • Teams who avoided clients becoming repeatedly caught up in a contact centre system by helping them to navigate their way to help – saving up to 30% of the team’s day
  • Professionals who overcame mutual hostility by finding what really mattered to each of them and how to value their contributions – enabling them to handle a rapidly growing caseload more successfully
  • Professionals who worked together to discover what made the greatest difference to their customers and how small those things actually were, then designed and got funding for a new, high impact service.

In these examples, the whole team were safely and constructively challenging norms – and leaders expressly allowed them to challenge norms within relatively wide boundaries.   They learned how to use a simple approach:

  • Engage people around an issue with questions, stories and data
  • Define the issues from different standpoints of key stakeholders
  • Find the exceptions that actually work
  • Share them.

For more information, you can read our case studies and learn more about the model.


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