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The normalisation of deviance


Every now and then, in my travels across the internet, I come across a quotation so perfect that I’ll start using it on every workshop I run.  I found one of those quotes the other day and I’ve been using it everywhere I can ever since:

Each uneventful day that passes reinforces a steadily growing false sense of confidence that everything is all right – that I, we, my group must be OK because the way we did things today resulted in no adverse consequences.

It’s a quote from Scott Snook, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, and is used in the context of the “normalisation of deviance” which is not as much fun as it sounds.

It describes a situation whereby a group or an organisation, usually under duress, takes a risk or a short-cut that it wouldn’t normally take.  Perhaps it eases its safety procedures or lowers its quality control standards.  Whatever it is, the decision is made in good faith that the measure is only temporary and that normal service or standards will be resumed when the crisis or unusual circumstances have passed.

However the group realises, consciously or unconsciously, that having taken a risk they have, effectively, gotten away with it – nothing bad has happened.  And so, instead of returning to the stricter procedures, the laxer regime is allowed to continue.  The longer this goes on without any adverse consequences, the more used to it the group or organisation becomes – essentially forgetting that there is any risk involved in what they’re doing as the deviant procedure or process becomes part of the normal, everyday run of things.

This applies to serious and tragic events such as the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and to trivial events, like me being pulled over by the police because one of my headlights wasn’t working.  It hadn’t been working for a while; I knew I had to fix it but the longer I left it the more normal it became until I had forgotten that I was taking a risk 

And this is the key thing, I think.  At the start, we know we’re running a risk but when disaster doesn’t strike we forget that risk doesn’t mean that an event will happen – merely that it is possible.  The longer we continue without the risked event occurring, the more we forget that the risk is still there – it just hasn’t happened yet.  As the deviance is normalised we forget the risk that’s being taken and then suddenly disaster arrives out of, apparently, nowhere.

Are you successful?  Are you, your team, your organisation doing well?  Are you doing well because of the actions you’re taking or despite them?  What risks have you normalised?  What disaster, even now, as you read this, could be building because of a deviant procedure that you might even have forgotten about?  Sleep well – and don’t have nightmares.

2 Responses

  1. Learning from the Christmas turkey

    In his book The Black Swan, Nasim Taleb recounts the story of the turkey who is lulled into a false sense of security by being fed and pampered every day by seemingly caring humans. Every feeding reinforces the birds belief that everything is OK because, based on its past experience and observations, there is no reason to doubt that things will change. Nothing bad has happened so far. Where’s the risk? But of course the turkey never makes it past Christmas Day. What we learn from the past can easily become irrelevant and even dangerous. This has lessons for organisational learning which is often based on learning from the past.

  2. Christmas is coming

     Hi Mike

    Excellent story – I’ve not heard that one before; it illustrates the situation perfectly!

    Thanks for sharing it


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