The Organizational Strategist

February 22, 2010

Unlocking Hidden Potential through Positive Deviants


In any organization, there will be top performers, exemplary people, and outliers from the norm of the workplace. Those people have experienced the extraordinary in some fashion and the better ones will be able to repeat or recreate their great efforts over time. One can identify them because they are the ones that receive awards, get recognition, obtain big promotions and raises, succeed where others fail, get placed in the high profile and visible projects and more. They are the rock stars of an organization. These are the positive deviants. They are set apart from the flock because of their efforts, which makes them a deviant. Their excellent results are the positive aspect.

-Background of Positive Deviance-

My experience with searching for positive deviants came from my studies and application of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as taught by David Cooperrider and Ron Fry while in my later years at Weatherhead School of Management. When taken as a part of an AI interview and allowing for interviewees to engage in their own stories, positive deviants or examples of their actions can be a very powerful and moving start to a change initiative. When the AI interview questionnaire is well worded to allow for variety, diversity, and imagination, interviewees share their stories of positive deviance with pleasure and fond remembrance. Eyes light up, energy flows from the story teller, and everyone gets engaged in the moment. It’s a marvel to witness and leaves a lasting impression on everyone.

The more diverse and encompassing the positive deviant search is, the higher the likelihood that fantastic ideas, actions, and results will emerge. Any time where an experience or approach may be different, a positive deviant search could take place. If there is a rigid structure that must be followed with no divergence, then there will be no deviants, positive or otherwise, available. The tightly scripted internationally routed computer tech support calls, where the tech support person knows no more vocabulary than the script itself, comes to mind. That is a situation where positive deviants would be difficult to find. The environment where positive deviants will blossom the most would be one that is diverse, learning, experimenting and evolving. For example, business development professionals that make sales calls seem like an art form of intricately dancing wordplay, skillful topic navigation, and provocative offers would be a highly promising area to look for positive deviants.

-Tapping into the Latent Positive Deviance-

Surfacing the stories and examples of positive deviance is the core element of improving an organization or initiative. Here are some simplified steps to take to realize the value of positive deviance.

  1. Set the topic, context, direction or strategy that frames the environment where some may have demonstrated positive deviance
  2. Inquire about examples where the extraordinary happened in as many areas as possible
  3. Capture the story, knowledge, ideas, and more from these positive deviant examples
  4. Combine the captured information by theme
  5. Make the information actionable to individuals, teams, and organizations

There are many, many ways that learning can take place from positive deviants. Here are some opportunities that immediately come to mind:

  • Personal and professional development
  • Business process improvement
  • Training material expansion
  • Informational interview arrangements
  • Product/Service innovation
  • Career advice and insight
  • Cross-functional or team collaboration
  • Efficiency or effectiveness acceleration


Everyone has their brilliant moments. Some people, groups, or organizations have more moments than others. Unearthing and surfacing those moments of greatness and making more of them happen can be achieved through cultivation from positive deviants. Recognizing the sound of opportunity knocking is the first part, but taking the chance to engage in that opportunity leading to new adventures is a decision everyone must make. Who wouldn’t want to learn from those who have had astonishing adventures?


February 15, 2010

Leadership will be vital to harnessing, cultivating, and retaining Gen Y


As time goes by, each generation has its time to thrive. Baby Boomers have been enjoying their career prime for awhile now and are starting retirement or already have retired. Gen Xers have strived to find their prime and have been making headway. As I noted in an earlier article, Gen Y has been trying to get a foothold but times have been tough. In the coming years, Gen Y will be at a disadvantage because of the knowledge and experience gap created by the current economic climate and Boomer’s prolonging retirement. Companies that have not been cultivating the coming generation will face a talent management crisis once Baby Boomers and Gen X can no longer do all or most of the work necessary. What this means is that those companies will need to develop their Gen Y capacity and since the most talented Gen Y individuals will be highly sought after. To both attract and retain the talented, organizational leadership, management and supervision will be crucial.

-Exceptional Cases-

There are instances of individuals and companies that are already implementing measures to mitigate the risk and challenge for younger workers that the job market and economy has been creating. These are examples in which lessons can be learned and hopefully emulated by organizations and individuals alike. Not all examples will be feasible, but they can still help.

Many Baby Boomers are working longer, which makes it harder for Gen X and Gen Y to get jobs or move up the corporate ladder. Thankfully, there are some ways of lessening this difficulty. Take Abbot Labs as an example from this Businessweek article. The company has set up an arrangement where veteran workers can opt to work less days, take more vacation, and keep the same contributions to their retirement. While their salaries are decreased, this generates more opportunities for other employees, which will help close in on the knowledge and experience gaps. 

Additionally, there are Gen Y individuals who are utilizing technology to their advantage with flexible work styles according to an article by the Whig Standard, an online Canadian news site. These individuals are taking on multiple jobs to fulfill their varied needs and wants out of their professional life, which gives them more experience, skills, and knowledge. These parallel careers are made possible by flexible hours, pay for performance, communication accessibility devices (smart phones and the like) and roles that do not require a regular full time commitment.

– The Knowledge and Experience Gap is Growing-

Despite that there are fine examples that some are undertaking, the overall difficulty that having an entire generation underemployed looms over us. This Businessinsider article states that fewer Gen Y individuals have been working in recent years. The long term challenge that this exacerbates is the widening knowledge and experience gap. With retirement stocks and funds being down, job creation not keeping up with demand and Gen Y individuals struggling to find relevant jobs, this problem won’t go away any time soon. As a result of this, the Gen Y individuals that are employed will become even more valuable in the long haul because they will have the skills and abilities an organization needs. Retention and dedication to the best of these employees will be pivotal.

Management and leadership in organizations will be the crux of harnessing and retaining Gen Y individuals. This finding came from an Appreciative Inquiry initiative in a national power company that studied its own employees, its prospective employees, and Gen Y individuals as a whole. From the 100+ Gen Y interviews done the vast majority (more than 75%) strongly emphasized seeking out and valuing good relationships with their colleagues, supervisors, and leadership. Relationships are supremely important. Knowing this, the next step would be to understand how to cultivate good relationships.

From my personal experience and the professional projects I’ve been on, I’ve found that Gen Y is not easy to please. Unlike other generational trends where a particular kind of reward would often fit anyone from a generational population, Gen Y is so diverse that each member may be motivated by different kinds of rewards. Gen Y’s wants and needs are mixed, yet their supervisors play a highly impactful role in their job satisfaction. Instead, leadership in an organization needs to pave the way to create a culture of mindfulness and awareness throughout the organization. By doing so, it can remain attentive to the needs and wants of its employees effectively and then respond accordingly. For the full paper that I wrote on how to lead Gen Y, see this link: Leading Generation Y by Whit Tice.

A conclusion the paper makes is that cultivating mindfulness, receptivity, and awareness throughout an organization will become increasingly important. This is the fundamental element that will allow management, supervisors, and leadership to understand, appreciate, and create lasting positive relationships with their Gen Y counterparts.  Without having such a basis, relationships with Gen Y will be shaky at best. That could lead to an organizational deficiency in knowledge, experience, and the ability to produce high quality work results.


The economy and difficulty Gen Y is experiencing will not go away any time soon. There will be ongoing repercussions for many years to come. To begin to overcome these repercussions, there are positive steps that can be made. A culture of mindfulness would go a long way to helping individuals, teams, and organizations overall.


Earlier Organizational Strategist blog Gen Y article:

Abbot Labs example:

Gen Y parallel careers:

Gen Y not working much:

February 6, 2010

A Strategy Fundamental: Determining Sustainable Competitive Advantages


There is a lot of talk in organizations big and small, from the entrepreneur to the corporate giant, about competitive advantage. In any newly created product or service, it serves an existing need and replaces other services and products, even if the newly created product or service itself is unique. Everything can be boiled down to fundamental needs. The choice of a consumer comes down to what he or she perceives to be better. For instance, email has been great at speeding up communications. In many cases, it has replaced the usage of office memos, newsletters, and other printed media. Those forms still have uses, but they are not nearly used as much as before. The ease, speed, and price associated with email give it advantages over its competing products in many ways. However, not all aspects of a product, service, or organization can be as easily measured as the comparison of email to its predecessors. That is why mapping out competitive advantage is a fundamental and core skill for a strategist.

-Determining Sustainable Competitive Advantage-

A competitive advantage can come in many forms. The competitive aspect comes from the comparison to the many alternatives. One example might be the e-readers that I’ve previously written about. The Amazon Kindle first started directly competing against traditional paperback and hardback books as well as newspapers, online articles. More broadly the Kindle competed against leisure activities, professional development, and other pursuits that might take the place of reading, in an electronic format or not. More recently the closest competition to the Kindle would be the Nook, iPad and other electronic reading devices. The advantage comes from a value added product or service. It may be added quality, reduced time, or perhaps reduced costs. The form that a value comes about will vary though. Some examples might be securing low priced materials in contracts, a robust manufacturing process that keeps defects to a minimum, an excellent organization leader that motivates his employees very well, a patent cube for a great idea and many more aspects.  A particular product or service may have a competitive advantage over a similar product or service if it is better in some way. Likewise an entire organization may have competitive advantages over the other organizations that play in the same market space. However, in order for a competitive advantage to truly be valuable it would need to be sustainable over time. After all contracts can be dropped or changed, processes can be copied, top talent may switch companies, and exclusive patents can expire.

Like enduring strategy, a sustainable competitive advantage should evolve over time to maintain its advantage. If a competitive advantage can be easily copied by a competing firm or product/service then it is not truly sustainable. Characteristics of a sustainable competitive advantage are as follows:

  • It cannot be copied or replaced by competitors
  • It continues to add value year after year
  • It can be renewed over time
  • It has better value, in some manner, than the alternative(s)

The challenge when creating or building a competitive advantage is to ensure that those characteristics last over time. Nothing lasts forever, especially since we are always discovering new ways of doing things. The harder it is to copy/replace, the longer it adds value, the ease at which it can be renewed, and the amount of improved value an advantage has culminates in how sustainable a competitive advantage is. A sustainable competitive advantage must evolve to keep up with or constantly surpass the innovations in its market space.

The Toyota production system, as an example, has long been a competitive advantage for Toyota in comparison to the US auto companies. The speed of production, reduced defect rate and overall cheaper production cost of Toyota has been a huge struggle for other car companies. Yet, that seems to have changed over time as Toyota’s recent performance has declined. Notably, the signature vehicle, the Toyota Prius, has been racking up the number of problems and Toyota’s overall sales has decreased 17% from January 2009 according to this Financial Times blog post.

-Going Forward-

Without competitive advantages an organization is bound to fail over time because its competitors will adapt, grow, and excel. An organization, big, medium or small, should seek out its enduring strategy so that it can continue its existence and thrive. Sustainable competitive advantages are vital components that help make up an organization’s strategy. Making competitive advantages sustainable is what differentiates the companies that survive over time against those that disappear into history. Understanding what makes an advantage sustainable is a big step into determining how to win the market despite the competition’s efforts.


Financial Times blog article entitled “Toyota raises forecast despite recall crisis”:

February 3, 2010

Harnessing your Organization’s Innovation Potential via JAM Sessions


Generating ideas, making the most of the energy, intelligence and wisdom of an organization is often a topic that executives and leaders ponder. Who wouldn’t desire to get the most productivity out of their employee’s time? There are many activities that can help to achieve this, but they are often costly and/or take a lot of time away from the everyday demands of working life. What you may want to consider is holding what IBM has called a JAM session, which is also known as a flash forum. JAM sessions are also known as fly-ins or flash forums. I’ll use the terms interchangeably because they generally refer to the same type of action.

-Defining Fly-ins-

JAM sessions are high impact, short term, and intensive mass collaboration efforts done via virtual forums. Within these interactions members access the online forums wherever they may be to contribute ideas, add to the discussion of other ideas, and evaluate the quality of the created ideas. The participants can contribute at their own leisure during the day since forums allow for asynchronous updates. Usually these events last only a few days, but they are accessible 24 hours each day. That allows for global involvement and allows for contributions to be made at the participant’s convenience.

-Flash Forum Benefits-

The results of these events give energy, ideas, and increase networking in an organization at a fraction of the cost when comparing to the traditional in-person multi-day events. Such events are an opportunity for open innovation. For instance, it might play out that Susan in accounting introduces her new product idea in a forum that Claire in engineering helps imagine and then designs. With peer involvement and social navigation ratings (think or vendor reviews at Amazon), it becomes clear where the energy in an organization lies and how feasible an idea could be for implementation. These events conclude with loads of ideas, a more refreshed workforce from having done something different, and idea champions that could become future leaders in the organization.

-Making a JAM Session Successful-

There are many factors to making a large scale event possible and effective over time. I’ve listed suggestions that should help aid the planning, application, and follow through of the event.

Setting up the activity:

  • Direct the outputs to achieve particular aims that align with the organizational strategy
  • Bring in diverse stakeholder input to ensure representation and perspective sharing
  • Have a solid technological forum infrastructure to support the event needs such as:
    • high volume load capacity to allow for maximum involvement
    • ease of use (particularly in the readability areas of idea conversations)
    • information security (if needed)
    • objective peer rating and overall ranking

Implementing the activity:

  • Share and champion each other’s ideas
  • Create real dialogue to imagine implementation, predict ROI, and understand what resources or capabilities need to be aligned
  • Utilize respectful, professional behavior while contributing
  • Encourage and allocate time to allow employee contribution while the event is live

Following through the activity:

  • Recognize, celebrate and reward the good ideas, involvement, and contribution
  • Provide support from key decision makers to give sponsorship funding, empower the idea champions, and clear obstacles or hindrances to the projects
  • Make efforts to sustain the momentum, networking, and progress made from idea champions


The potential benefits from putting on a flash forum are tremendous. Employees get a chance to try out their ideas, exhibit their energy and organizational wisdom, and realize leadership potential through the championship of ideas. The management and executives can cultivate wide scale innovation, networking, and collaboration easily, effectively and at a significantly lower cost than traditional alternatives. The setup and execution of such events will only get easier and cheaper over time too! I hope that flash forums accomplish much for anyone who implements one.

Blog at