Normalization of Deviance

Fancy title, but it is a simple idea. Here’s a publication from NASA on the topic as it relates to the Challenger disaster.

In a nutshell, the concept might be explained by a pothole. Imagine a pothole in your parking lot. It has been there for years. You know to avoid it. It is part of the routine of parking every day. The pothole slowly becomes less of a problem and more of a unique feature of the parking lot.

This is the normalization of deviancy: Ignored become invisible.

Here’s a set of normalized problems in most places I consult:

  • Late projects
  • Over-budget projects
  • Low-quality code
  • Poor communication
  • Duplication of effort
  • Unwanted results
  • Opaque reporting
  • Production instability
  • Broken tests and testing
  • Unstable internal tools

There are more, and what I described exists at a relatively high-level. Take a look at each one and maybe ask how frustrating it is and also how it might simultaneously feel like, “That’s just the way it goes.”

Those conflicting feelings are the normalization of deviance in practice.

So what do you do about it? Well, this is a lot trickier, and I can’t confess to having a clear answer. What I think is more important to develop is an awareness of the problems people continually ignore or accept as normal. They tend to accumulate instead of change or vanish.

How many problems like that have accumulated into the way things are for you? What results can you honestly expect with all of those problems working against you?

Once you get an awareness of those issues, you can work to fix them. Now there is probably a whole lot of posts to write about how to go about doing it, but for now, I’ll leave this overly simplistic way of picking a problem to fix.

Fix any problem you can fix to any amount.

That’s my magic solution I’ll offer right now. I’m not suggesting you fix the problem for all time, but instead, offer some relief from it. That is both approachable and helpful. There is a time and place for thoughtful approaches to fixing these problems, but the first step is awareness. The second is getting comfortable nudging them at all.