When it makes sense to colour outside the lines

Management and management disciplines usually focus on what can and should be improved. In his doctoral research, Willem Mertens did exactly the opposite. He went in search of exceptionally high achievements. Why?

A discount earlier in the day

“The bakeries in a supermarket chain were allowed to sell their products at a discount at the end of the day. However one of the highest-performing bakeries started giving a small discount on certain products in the afternoon already, on breakfast pastries for example, because they do not sell as well in the afternoon anyway”, Willem explains. “As the day progresses, the prices are then reduced bit by bit down to the maximum discount allowed – if there are any pastries left by then.” This example immediately makes it clear what his doctoral thesis is all about. “I have researched positive deviance. That means behaviour that deviates from normal behaviour and/or the rules of an organisation, but is successful for precisely that reason.”

Along with researchers at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, Willem has developed a structured, reliable method of tracing and analysing positive deviance on the basis of a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques. He then applied the method to two concrete cases: (1) the bakery sections of a large supermarket chain in Australia and (2) two levels of management at the supermarkets in that chain, namely the store managers and the managers of the different sections.

900 supermarkets

Willem explains how they approached the task in practice: “We analysed the performance data of the bakery sections in search of units that contributed exceptionally well to the supermarkets’ turnover. Sections where performance could be explained by external factors such as location or the number of customers were not included. We went looking for sections that did significantly better for no apparent reason. And then we went to visit those sections to look at their working methods. We spent a lot of time there, talking to everyone to find out how far their way of working deviated from standard methods.”

In the second case study, the focus was on management. “We investigated the impact of leadership behaviour and the way structure and rules were imposed on positive deviance and financial performance. All in all, we took surveys of no less than 3400 employees at almost 900 supermarkets.”

Who does it? How do you stimulate it?

One result of this research was to provide insight into the factors that determine whether someone will demonstrate positive deviance. It turned out that in a standardised environment, employees who exhibited positive deviance were those who (1) genuinely wanted to do their job well, (2) felt that they had control of what they were doing, that they could influence their job and the surroundings and (3) had the right skills for their job.

The attitude of management also plays an important role. Do employees have the feeling that they can have an impact? Are they empowered? Willem explains what this means: “For example, there was a manager who gave his employees space to experiment. If someone had an idea for how to do something better, they could try it out for eight weeks. The effect was closely monitored. If the results were positive, the idea was taken on board, and if not it was abandoned. This is a way to stimulate positive deviance without losing control.”

The learning organisation

In other words, deviant behaviour is not necessarily bad. Positive deviance leads to improvements and stops organisations from getting stuck in a routine.

As Willem tells us, “different units usually perform according to a standard distribution. Therefore learning from the best performers means the following: instead of ‘pushing’ the left-hand side of the curve, the worst-performing units, in the direction of the average, you ‘pull’ the right-hand side of the curve. It is a positive way of working towards improvements, and any changes are therefore less likely to encounter resistance.”

“However it is important not to stop at simply copying the alternative approach,” he warns. “Because then that just becomes the new standard. To have a long-term effect, the idea is constantly to find people who demonstrate positive deviance and create an environment in which they can flourish. Then you will get a learning organisation, an organisation that uses the available people and tools to improve constantly.”

A couple of tips

  • Organisations today have access to a lot of data, but its potential is not yet fully exploited. Analyse the available data, not as a stick to beat poor performers but as a tool to identify exceptional ones.
  • Keep an eye out for employees who exhibit positive deviance and give them space in a controlled manner.

Source: ‘Positive deviance: a study of measurements and determinants.’ by Willem Mertens. Doctoral thesis in Applied Economics at KU Leuven in 2014. Promoter: Professor Stijn Viaene (Vlerick Business School). Co-promoters: Professor Koen Dewettinck (Vlerick Business School) and Professor Jan Recker (Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia).

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