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Innovativeness as Positive Deviance

written by Giselle Nicholson 17 October 2012

Giselle Nicholson Timmerman, MAPP '06, has over nine years of experience working as a strategy consultant and leadership coach in the Americas, Europe, and Middle East. Giselle has pioneered the application of positive psychology to strategy, leadership, and organizations. She has seen the field develop firsthand and is fortunate to collaborate with the very best practitioners in the world via her collaborative consultant network, Positive Work. Giselle serves as President-elect of the Work Division for the International Positive Psychology Association. Full bio. Giselle's articles are here.

Editor’s Note: This is the 5rd in a series of articles about The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. See also Kirsten Cronlund’s article, A Powerful Collection: Book Review and Amanda Horne’s articles, Virtuous Organizations, Positive Deviance, and Kim Cameron’s Deviance Continuum.

What is Innovation?

I find all aspects of innovation fascinating, including

Similar to the challenge of establishing a precise conceptual definition for what is considered “positive” in Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), defining “innovation” is tricky. Distinct from creativity, inventions, and lightbulb moments of genius, innovation is about bringing ideas to life that result in a new or improved process or outcome. The usefulness of each innovation is dependent on its perceived uniqueness within a specific context and time. Even Edison waited 10 years for enough useful knowledge to be available before he decided to go after his electrical innovation.

Innovativeness as Positive Deviance is chapter 53 of the new Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Authors Jeff DeGraff and Dan Nathan-Roberts argue that characterizing the complex and seemingly polarized nature of innovation requires a holistic approach. Innovativeness is both

  • cause and effect;
  • process and product/outcome;
  • created by individuals and created by groups;
  • evolutionary and revolutionary in speed;
  • incremental and radical in magnitude;
  • influenced by external and internal environmental factors,
  • and more.

Fundamentally, while an innovation can be “primarily distinguished by its unique qualities that allow us to recognize it as something better or new from that which currently exists,” what we deem as better or new changes over time. In practice, it is context and culturally specific. To illustrate the authors’ approach to innovation, let’s consider how technology can transform higher education.

From Innovation to Innovativeness

To accommodate the range of attributes, functions, and dynamics of innovation within the context of POS, the authors suggest using the concept of innovativeness defined as “an attribute or distinguishing property of any number of actions and outcomes that create the useful novelty.”

There are three social levels where innovativeness may produce innovation:

  1. Strategic or “macro” level (e.g., US education system in our higher education example)
  2. Organizational or collective “enterprise” level where the organization exhibits its agency (e.g., individual university)
  3. Individual or “personal” level of leaders, managers, and innovators (e.g., university president and faculty members)

To spur progress and growth, innovativeness relies on cross-disciplinary and multi-dimensional approaches. The three main dimensions are:

  1. Propositions: The focus is on innovation as a means to an end, favoring speed and magnitude, and measuring success in outcomes such as productivity, time to market, and ROI. An example end is to reverse the 30-year trend of 6-7% increase in tuition annually.
  2. Practices: The focus is on processes and methodologies for understanding how innovation happens. An example is designing processes that increase student enrollment while improving efficiency of resource use.
  3. People: Most closely associated with innovativeness, this dimension focuses on the collective and creative experience of innovation from start to finish. An example is redesigning how instructors teach with online teaching technology.

Innovativeness Influenced by the Competing Values Framework

The authors introduce the competing values framework (CVF) to “organize the structures, dynamics, and practices associated with particular types of innovation.” This framework is a holistic approach to understanding and productively using the positive tensions that exist between four modalities (or forms in which innovativeness occurs) in order to generate new and better solutions. The chapter does a deep dive into the framework which I won’t reiterate here.

    Competing Values Framework

The authors call out several POS concepts within each model identifed in the CVF.

  • Clan: Human Relations Model: team building & collaboration, cooperation, relationship development, shared values, harmonious work environment, development of personal and collective competencies, positive energizers
  • Market: Rational Goal Model: rewarding high performers, transforming problems into opportunities for abundance, creating clear goals for success and encouraging their pursuit
  • Adhocracy: Open Systems Model: creativity, generativity, shared vision, energetic and positively affirming culture, belief in achieving the seemingly impossible
  • Hierarchy: Internal Process Model: continuous improvement, integrity, organizational learning

The tensions among these models are opportunities for investigating the positive processes, outcomes, and interpretations of innovation. For instance, the tension between the Clan and Market Models explains different trade-offs regarding speed of innovation. If we must move to an online teaching business model, do we take the time to build the faculty’s skills and develop buy-in, or do we accept faculty attrition as the cost of business?

Similarly, the tension between the Adhocracy and Hierarchy Models affects the level of risk or expense an organization is willing to invest for innovation. Do we pursue revolutionary, disruptive innovation by offering all courses online for free, or do we incrementally provide online classes which is less disruptive but may be insufficient for reaching a new student market?

Ultimately, effective innovativeness draws from all four models to determine what’s needed to grow well and adapt within a complex environment.

Future Directions

The chapter ends on the note that there is much work to be done to integrate the concept of innovativeness into POS theory and practice. The authors leave us with three questions that set a direction for future research:

  1. How do POS principles function in the Market and Hierarchy models?
  2. How can the financial concept of deficiency be directly addressed by POS principles of abundance?
  3. How do POS principles function in our virtual and collaborative environment of product development?

Hungry for More: Future Themes I’ll Explore

While I appreciate how the chapter explored the basic attributes, functions, and dynamics of innovativeness within an organizational context using the competing values framework, I’m left hungry for more on the linkages between POS concepts and innovation. I’m mulling over several themes to explore in future articles:

  • Is innovativeness restricted to the boundaries of positive deviance, or is positive deviance more like a learning method (similar to design thinking) for understanding innovation?
  • Can we use the four approaches for defining what is “positive” in POS to define a “positive innovation”? (See Kirsten’s article for a summary of the 4 approaches.)
  • The really hard problems the world is facing are adaptive challenges imbedded in complex social systems, which call for social innovation. Even management guru Peter Drucker believed that social innovation “…may be of greater importance and have much greater impact than any scientific or technical invention.” How can POS help share the positive processes and practices of social innovation with more traditional business and financial innovation?

As I mull over these themes, please share your thoughts — Where you see the greatest synergies for POS and innovation?


Cameron, K.S., Spreitzer, G.S. (2011). Introduction. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Christensen, C. M., Baumann, H., Ruggles, R. & Sadtler, T. M. (2006). Disruptive Innovation for Social Change. Harvard Business Review, 84 (12), 96. Abstract.

DeGraff, J., Nathan-Roberts, D. Innovativeness as Positive Deviance. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship.

Drucker, P. F. (2002). The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker’s Essential Writings on Management. HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Kamenetz, A. (2010). DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lavine, M. (2011). Positive deviance. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Phills J.A. et al. (2008). Rediscovering Social Innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review. There’s a presentation by the author here.

Anthony, S. (2012). How Do You Create a Culture of Innovation? Fast Company online

Bruno, G. & Lippe, S. (2012). Rethinking Financial Innovation. World Economic Forum Reports online

Robinson, J. (2012). The Crash of the Eurozone? Interview of Robert Manchin by Jennifer Robinson. Gallup Business Journal.

Sustainability: The social innovation equation from the Designit website.
The Real Work Experience – chart from a Design for Social Change workshop courtesy of thinkpublic
Levels of innovativeness is a figure from the chapter
Competing Values Framework from the blog of Vincent van Eekhout

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Senia 18 October 2012 - 1:03 pm


Do you have a favorite of the three dimensions? I happen to love processes, so what the authors call “practices.” In my experience in research and practice, focusing on processes often gives better results than focusing on process. I can give a citation if that’s relevant.


Giselle 19 October 2012 - 1:35 am

Hi Senia,

Please, I’d love a citation. I find it easier to understand the People dimension, however, I do find Practices much more interesting. In my work with nonprofits it’s really exciting to see what happens when you get people to start thinking differently about processes.

Best, Giselle

Senia 22 October 2012 - 3:45 am

Hi Giselle,

Here’s an interesting one:

From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance
Lien B. Pham & Shelley E. Taylor

Mental simulations enhance the links between thought and action. The present research contrasted mental simulations that emphasize the process required to achieve a goal versus the outcome of goal achievement. For 5 to 7 days prior to a midterm examination, college freshmen mentally simulated either the process for doing well on the exam (good study habits) or simulated a desired outcome (getting a good grade) or both. A self-monitoring control condition was included. Results indicated that process simulation enhanced studying and improved grades; the latter effect was mediated by enhanced planning and reduced anxiety. Implications of process and outcome simulations for effective goal pursuit are discussed.

And another:

Harnessing the imagination: Mental simulation, self-regulation, and coping.
Taylor, Shelley E.; Pham, Lien B.; Rivkin, Inna D.; Armor, David A.

Mental simulation provides a window on the future by enabling people to envision possibilities and develop plans for bringing those possibilities about. In moving oneself from a current situation toward an envisioned future one, the anticipation and management of emotions and the initiation and maintenance of problem-solving activities are fundamental tasks. In the program of research described in this article, mental simulation of the process for reaching a goal or of the dynamics of an unfolding stressful event produced progress in achieving those goals or resolving those events. Envisioning successful completion of a goal or resolution of a stressor—recommendations derived from the self-help literature—did not. Discussion centers on the characteristics of effective and ineffective mental simulations and their relation to self-regulatory processes.


The links:

Amanda Horne 2 November 2012 - 1:26 am

Hi Giselle – I enjoyed reading your article and how you connected this with Quinn’s competing values framework. You wrote ” is innovativeness restricted to the boundaries of positive deviance”. I think that positive deviance gives no boundaries, and that innovation could create boundary-less innovation. The upward spirals where innovation leads to positive deviance leads to innovation.



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