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Written By

Jim VanderMey

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November 5, 2020

Normalization of Deviance: Definition, Examples and Solutions

Feature image for the Normalization of Deviance article showing a wave creeping up on a shoreline with the word "Boundaries" overlaid

In a recent conference call with a client, one of our principal consultants was leading a discussion about undertaking an enterprise IT assessment and developing an IT roadmap.

The client brought up “normalization of deviance,” which is one of my favorite concepts as a technology leader. Many IT organizations are unaware of the range of problems organizational leaders and employees face as people stop calling into the help desk and develop their own workarounds.

What Is Normalization of Deviance?

Dr. Diane Vaughan of Columbia University coined the term “normalization of deviance” in her analysis of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. In her book, she explains that “normalization of deviance” is the process by which deviance from correct or proper behavior becomes normalized in a corporate culture. In the context of the Challenger disaster, launching with malfunctioning equipment, accepting O-ring performance issues and other seemingly obvious problems were ignored as a result of how “the boundaries defining acceptable behavior incrementally widened, incorporating incident after aberrant incident.”

This phenomenon is common across industries. For example, during a recent engagement with a healthcare system, we were discussing desktop and endpoint solutions in a hospital emergency department (ED). ED physicians are experts at thinking in the moment, problem solving and efficiently utilizing their time. The lead physician in this unit specifically said, “if it takes longer to call the help desk than it does for me to work around the problem, I don’t call.”

How Can You Prevent Normalization of Deviance?

At OST, we apply learnings and experience from human-centered design (HCD) to observe, discover and understand latent issues that have become normalized, that people have stopped asking about because they assume change is not possible. The ability to identify and challenge those assumptions and behaviors is incredibly valuable, and it led to our acquisition of Visualhero in 2016 and partnership with Azul Seven a few months ago.

As we help business stakeholders embrace the potential of technology and help technologists connect IT to business, we look for problems that have become normalized. With a fresh perspective derived from deep knowledge and experience, we forge a path forward with clients toward solutions.

Of course, normalization of deviance isn’t only an IT problem. In life and work, we may incrementally accept negative changes and just move forward. What problem has become so normalized that you have stopped trying to challenge, solve or improve the situation?

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About the Author

Jim VanderMey, Chief Innovation Officer, has been with OST since the very beginning. Throughout his career, Jim has taught and spoken at international conferences; acquired a wide range of technical certifications; consulted for enterprises in manufacturing, healthcare and many other industries; and accomplished much more. Outside of OST, Jim is a commissioner for the State of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services HIT Commission, sits on multiple advisory boards at universities and pursues other community involvement activities. Outside of work, you’ll often find Jim reading, paddle-boarding, spending time with his family (including six grandkids) and serving with his wife Ann at their church.