How to Use Deviance to Predict Your Future


“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” – Niels Bohr

In “The Deviant’s Advantage,” the authors argue that most companies never make big breakthroughs because they focus all their talent and energy on mainstream stuff — stuff that’s popular today — and not on the Fringe stuff that will become super-profitable tomorrow.

You can find out if your business is guilty of this mistake by making a list of the five most frustrating things that have happened to you this week and then asking, “How many of these have to do with company culture — the bureaucratic (often unwritten) rules and regulations that limit what you can do or say?”

Most mediocre companies try to stifle deviance completely. They create policies and procedures that seek to regulate all possible “problems” out of existence — including social problems like sexual harassment, gender and racial prejudice, social protocols, etc. Ideas are all treated equally, just as people are. Harmony and cooperation are the primary goals.

If you want your company to make the big breakthroughs that come from future-oriented thinking, you must change the culture to allow for deviance. You must start by thinking about your company as “both mortal and perishable.”

Next, you must recruit from the Edge by looking for people with unconventional backgrounds, giving preference to generalists not specialists. Encourage your employees to grow by asking them to think about what they want to do when they leave the company and giving them the skills and information necessary to do just that. Also, you should form alliances with deviant partners.

Remember, the authors say, that your buyers are in as much a state of transition as you are. “Their sense of personal context is being abolished as they struggle for meaning in a rapidly changing world.”

OK … but I would recommend the following adjustments to the above:

1. You don’t need to work too hard to soften up your corporate culture. Although it probably does a lot to discourage deviant ideas from having their share of serious consideration, most of those deviant ideas have no right to come through. They are bad ideas to begin with, and the process of sniffing them out and obliterating them — the corporate policy of resisting change — is a healthy way to allow only the strongest ideas to emerge.

2. You don’t need to hire card-carrying deviants. Hire people who are smart, hard-working, and get along with their peers. Don’t worry too much about whether they are straight or deviant. Given the normal course of things, a healthy minority of those you hire will have deviant impulses. The trick is to encourage deviant ideas that have some sense in them and to discourage ideas that are either too conventional (i.e., passé) or lack the special something that might get them to the next level.

3. I like the idea of hiring generalists, and I am a big believer in rewarding people who come up with unexpected, original ideas. If you pay attention to your best people, you will find that a certain number of them have a way of spotting The Next Big Thing. Those people should be complimented publicly and encouraged to continue doing what they are doing.

4. Don’t be afraid of entering into partnerships with businesses that are a tad on the deviant side. Although you’ll get a lot of resistance to this from the rank and file — and even from your board — you will gain an enormous advantage in terms of discovering new marketing methods and product-development ideas.

One quick example of this idea in action: AGP, my largest client, is well-known for its tolerance of deviance. It has in its employ a full range of smart and nutty people and regularly makes alliances with odd and sometimes eccentric partners. Its leaders discourage deviance for the sake of deviance, but they encourage their managers to give alternative ideas their day in court.

A consequence of this liberality is a business that seems to outsiders and even to consultants disorganized and on the verge of being unbalanced. But another result is that there are so many interesting ideas being born and tested at all times that the company has been able to quadruple in size and profits in 10 years.

Once again … I’m not advocating chaos. A good business is one that insists that 80% to 90% of its activities be done traditionally — the way they’ve always been done. By staying mostly on the conventional side, you can be sure that the important secrets of your business and all the processes and protocols that make it work are spread throughout and are duly honored.

But by allowing for a little bit of deviance, and not being afraid of it, you will be better able to see and capitalize on future trends while they are still on the Edge. If you can do that now and then, you’ll one day see your business skyrocket.