THE SUCCESSFUL DEVIANT
Todd Dewett | April 15, 2016
There are two major approaches to creating organizational change. The first is to utilize organizational politics: favors, horse trading, and coalitions. This is the more popular, accepted, and successful approach.
The second approach is deviance: be a maverick, go to the mat, fly under the radar, break rules, and subvert the system all in the name of innovation. This path is less popular, less successful, and far more dangerous for your career.
The politicians and deviants are often at odds. The politicians represent the current system and the system is not designed to embrace deviants. Quite the opposite.
Ah, the deviant. Part rebel, part agitator, part devil’s advocate, part dreamer, part pain in the butt. They are necessary catalysts for creativity and innovation, yet they polarize and risk the system’s wrath. How is a well-intentioned deviant to survive?
There are a few obvious things I could say which have been said many times. I could remind you that you need to recruit a gang. The more you’re a part of a pack of deviants, the safer you are. I could also remind you to build appropriate bonds with those in power. Like them or not, you need them. These and many more tactics are very useful, but for me three really best explain long-term success as an organizational deviant.
First, you have to earn the right to be deviant. You are not allowed to be the new guy and just start throwing bombs. You must earn the latitude to speak up and deviate. You earn this luxury through great performance as defined by the current system. I am not an old school adherent to the idea of seniority. You don’t earn the right to deviate by being on the team for a specified period of time. Instead, you win chips in the game by creating a pattern of sustained high performance. Then you are allowed to question the system.
Next, once you start deviating a little, strive to be a gracious deviant. No one loves a braggart or a sore loser. When your risky or abnormal actions produce a win, share the praise widely. When you lose, don’t yell, blame, or otherwise irritate anyone. Instead, apologize if needed and learn something that will help you next time. Ultimately, deviants are not judged by the deviations themselves, but by how they behave following actual wins and losses. Between wild subversions, you have to learn to do your time quietly and productively.
Finally, successful deviants know which fights to pick. Not all risks are created equally and every deviant has a limited capacity for rebellion. Think before you deviate. Be strategic! Remember, there are issues that matter to you, issues that matter to the team, and issues that matter to the organization. The trick is to choose risks that have payouts for people other than just you! The more the team or the organization will clearly benefit from your subversive actions, the slower they are to condemn you. The more you appear to be self-serving, the faster they pull out the pitchforks.
The politicians and coalition builders tend to dominate leadership. They mean well, but they can be slow and oddly respectful of red tape. The maverick moves much faster, but the risks are quite real for your reputation. Don’t pick a fight everyday. That simply makes you a bully. Instead, pick a small number of fights that really matter, and do so thoughtfully. The deviant’s first goal must be survival. Otherwise, what’s the point?