Small, Positive Practices and Big, Positive Outcomes

In some of our Executive Education Programs we have participants come back for a follow-up week. When this happens I do a review session in which I ask them what they went home and did differently. Here are four inspiring examples of small moves with large impact.

One man went home and thought through all the things he learned. He worked hard to boil everything down to one simple move that would have the highest possible impact. What he came up with was an act of positive deviance. It was brilliant simplicity. On the whiteboard in his office, he wrote, “What result do you want to create?” Every time a direct report came in with a problem, he simply pointed at the question. He did not talk, he pointed at the question. This caused a stir but soon people were coming in having already thought about their purpose. In engaging in this brilliant simplicity he was creating a culture of purpose. In the process he was also empowering his people. He said, “I stopped telling and moved to the power of inquiry, now things are changing.”

A woman left the first week deeply impressed about what she learned about her own resilience in the face of adversity. She wanted her people to better understand how bad experiences, met with purpose, turn into stories of growth and learning. She asked her people to pair up and each share a personal resilience story. This was way outside the culture so she started by modeling the process. She told her own story of personal challenge and recovery. She expected that some would tell very mundane stories. She was surprised when most people became fully authentic.   She reported that it was one of the most “profound and inspiring” things she has done as a leader.

Another person said his unit was in a tumultuous time and there is a lot of unhelpful “noise” in the group. There was little sense of success and celebration. So he required that each of his direct reports write him an email each week describing the person’s biggest success of the week.   This was resisted but he insisted. So he received one each week. Then something surprising happened. He started to get more than one a week. Once the process was legitimized his people wanted to share their successes. They could not do this in the previous, conventional culture. So now his is storing up the successes and pondering how to best use their stories in the next step of building a positive culture.

One man manages 350 staff people. There had been some talk of the value of flexible schedules so he told a subgroup that he would like them to design and bring him a flexible schedule plan that would work. They were dumbfounded but they took it on. When they shared their plan there were a number of unworkable elements but he did not critique any. He only asked questions and asked them to come back with another proposal.   They then “policed their own ideas” and produced a radical new program that immediately began to work. One woman, for example, was able to completely eliminate the cost of child care. They are not preparing to roll out the program for all 350 people. He claimed that he is experiencing a new level of “understanding, trust and empowerment.”

The above initiatives are seemingly small acts of positive deviance.   The person violated cultural expectations. Direct reports were surprised or resistant but over time their behavior changed. The culture in some way turned more positive. It would seem that any manager would read these accounts and be willing to do similar things. This is not the case.

Many mangers hear of positive practices, agree that they are valuable but do nothing. Why? Their fear of embarrassment exceeds their desire to improve the unit. I do not condemn this fear because it is the same fear we all carry.  It is why I invented the positive organizational generator. By giving people 100 practices, asking them to select the few most interesting and then reinvent them to fit their context, managers can create something they really believe in. When managers create their own positive practices, they are more likely to take action. It is crucial to remember that we all fear leading. We all need to be both inspired and supported. I hope these accounts inspire you to invent something you believe in.


Which of the four practices do I find most interesting?

How could I reinvent the most interesting practice to fit my context?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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