Most of us in the creativity brainstorming world are professional deviants.
We don’t typically use the term deviant, preferring the less harsh term gadfly. Or in a politically correct world, idea catalyst.
But deviant is good enough for J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and leading expert on teams. Hackman has spent his career exploring and questioning — the wisdom of teams.
In a recent interview with Diane Coutu called “Why Teams Don’t Work” he talks about why every team needs a deviant.
Coutu: “If teams need to stay together to achieve the best performance, how do you prevent them from becoming complacent?”
Hackman: “This is where what I call the deviant comes in. Every team needs a deviant, someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning.
Deviants are the ones who stand back and say, “Well wait a minute, why are we even doing this at all?” What if we looked at the thing backwards or turned it inside out?” That’s when people say, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s ridiculous” and so the discussion about what’s ridiculous comes up…the deviant opens up more ideas and that gives you a lot more originality.
I view these types more as disruptors than deviants. They look at things differently, bring in novel ideas from outside the group and generally disrupt the ‘easy flow’ of a strong team. They look to stretch or beak some of the constraints that we use, in order to make sure we really need them.They are often disliked by the rest of the group and will simply shut up if not provided even a little support.
And that is what most teams do, shut them up. Shunning is usually the main approach. The disruptors then quickly understand and stop disrupting. The inability to support any disruption, often because it may seem almost insubordinate, leads to the failure of many teams.
But, even a little support will go a long way. Some useful facilitation of disruptors, allowing their ideas to be brought out and examined, can have a huge effect on the general creativity of the group. Good managers need to realize this because, as has been shown in many studies, the people that act as useful filters for this sort of disruptive information, the ones that help the community adopt these disruptive ideas, are often the ones that are viewed as thought leaders in the organization and on the track to greater things.
Unfortunately, at the moment, few organizations properly recognize the disruptor. Maybe that will change.