Normalization of deviance

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Pursuing success often involves meticulous planning, diligent execution, and unwavering adherence to established standards and best practices. 

However, there are instances where projects deviate from these norms and still manage to continue without immediate consequences. 

This phenomenon is known as the “Normalization of Deviance.” 

In this article, we will explore the normalization of deviance, its implications for project management, and how organizations can prevent it.

Defining the normalization of deviance

The term “Normalization of Deviance” was first introduced by sociologist Diane Vaughan in her study of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. 

She observed how deviations from established safety protocols and standards had become so ingrained in NASA’s culture that they were no longer perceived as significant risks. This normalization allowed risky behaviors to persist until they ultimately led to a catastrophic failure.

In project management, the normalization of deviance refers to the gradual acceptance and rationalization of deviations from established project management processes, standards, and best practices. 

Over time, these deviations become the new normal, leading to a false sense of security and an increased tolerance for risky behaviors.

While understanding the definition of the normalization of deviance is important, it is equally crucial to recognize its implications for project management and its potential risks.

Implications for project management:

The normalization of deviance can have several detrimental effects on project management:

  • Increased risk: when deviations from established practices are normalized, the inherent risks associated with those deviations are often overlooked. This can lead to a higher probability of project failures, delays, and budget overruns.
  • Weakening of controls: as deviant behaviors become normalized, the checks and balances to ensure project success lose effectiveness. Project managers may start overlooking warning signs or fail to address issues promptly, leading to further project deterioration.
  • Negative impact on quality: by accepting deviations as the new normal, project teams may compromise on quality standards and take shortcuts that undermine the quality of deliverables.
  • Erosion of accountability: when deviant behaviors go unchallenged and become normalized, accountability can diminish. This can create a culture where individuals feel justified in cutting corners or taking unnecessary risks without facing the consequences.

Considering the significant implications of the normalization of deviance in project management, it is essential to implement preventive measures to mitigate risks and ensure the long-term success of projects.

Preventing the normalization of deviance

To mitigate the risks associated with the normalization of deviance, project managers and organizations should consider the following strategies:

  • Promote a culture of transparency: encourage open communication and ensure that team members feel comfortable reporting deviations from established processes or best practices. This helps in identifying and addressing issues early on.
  • Maintain vigilance: continuously monitor project activities, processes, and outcomes to detect deviations from the established norms. Promptly investigate and correct any departures to reinforce the importance of adherence to standards.
  • Foster a learning environment: encourage a culture of continuous improvement and learning from past experiences. Conduct post-project reviews to identify lessons learned and implement changes to prevent the recurrence of deviant behaviors.
  • Lead by example: project managers and senior leaders should set the right example by consistently following established processes and standards. By demonstrating a commitment to best practices, they encourage others to do the same.

The normalization of deviance poses significant risks to project management, potentially leading to project failures, compromised quality, and erosion of accountability. 

Recognizing this phenomenon and taking proactive measures to prevent its occurrence is crucial for successful project delivery. 

By promoting a culture of transparency, maintaining vigilance, fostering a learning environment, and leading by example, project managers can reduce the likelihood of deviant behaviors becoming normalized and ensure the long-term success of their projects.

Normalization of deviance
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