Positive Deviance

Written by Dave Rothacker on September 29, 2023

Do you want to guide your company to make a difference in the world?

This is a story about a practice described in the business book that launched modern-day business books, its authors and a term used in the field of sociology. The intent is to prime you for your mission to take your company to a higher level.

It seemed like almost every management book was about bad news and how to fix it. And ours was about good news, period.” Tom Peters, coauthor of In Search of Excellence, as told to Dorie Clark in her book Stand Out.

All we hear today is, “We’re living in a time of uncertainty led by wavering leaders; Here are my 10 leadership lessons for uncertain times.” “The pandemic has crushed business as usual; Here are my 11 innovative action steps for these trying times.” In other words, “This is busted, broken and blighted; Here’s what to do.”

Tom Peters began research for the seminal business book, In Search of Excellence, in the late 1970s. Bob Waterman joined Peters in 1980 as the American economy was beginning its slide into a recession. It was published in 1982.

Instead of calling on popular CEOs and famous industry experts, Peters and Waterman went in search of corporations that were experiencing success. It’s interesting to note that even when interviewing these companies, they didn’t seek out the CEOs. They spoke with divisional general managers instead. Peters reasoned that these managers were close enough to the action that they wouldn’t wax philosophical about best practices as a C-level exec might.

Positive Deviance

Positive Deviance is a term used in social sciences. According to the Positive Deviance Initiative, it means:

Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.

Your Mission

Look for successful businesses and owners who are open to sharing. Typically successful practices are lumped into the industry category of “best practices”. We hear about these from trade journals, contractor support groups and from contractors themselves. Unfortunately, biases from any of these entities can creep into the equation causing an inaccurate depiction resulting in a loss of accuracy results from the translation.

Your mission is to employ positive deviance and get to the bottom of what is causing success. But you need help.

Pursue a Fresh Look: Enlist an Anthropologist

Anthropology is the study of human societies, their cultures and development. Anthropologists are trained to immerse themselves into a culture and study its origin, development and the behaviors of those involved.

Put together a group of five non-competitive company owners whose businesses are successful. Hire a business anthropologist. Their assignment is to apply anthropological techniques to uncover the root causes of success in each of the five companies. Results (as well as costs) are shared equally amongst the participants.

You’re after a different perspective from that of status quo industry consultants, self-labeled influencers and the accompanying bias of company insiders. A disinterested, third-party business anthropologist will uncover factors of success that flow beneath untrained eyes, even those in the midst of success.

Put a Bow on it

It’s one thing to uncover the successful practices of other companies involved. It’s another thing to implement them in your company.

Some business anthropologists might have a track record of doing it. The alternative is to bring on a coach who number one, is open-minded. And two who can see the value in this practice altogether.

The bottom line is once these successful measures are identified it’s critical to put those that make the most sense into play. A coach can help you with that.

If you truly want your company to make a difference in the lives of others, consider taking a page out of Tom Peters and Bob Waterman’s book In Search of Excellence.

Get Stuff Done!

Many are aware of the fact that Tom Peters is one of the most impactful management/leadership thinkers of all time. Did you know that the topic of his PhD dissertation from Stanford University was “Implementation?” The art of implementing, of getting stuff done, has been a driving force behind all of his work.

Tom has the youngest mind of anyone I know who was born before 1945. Check him out!