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Kim Cameron: Positive Deviance

Positive Psychology is an important component of modern workplace thinking and has become a powerful force in organisational thinking with its off-shoot, ‘Positive Organisational Scholarship’. At the forefront of this rapidly developing field is Kim Cameron.

Kim Cameron


Short Biography

Kim S Cameron was born in 1946 and earned his bachelors and masters degrees in sociology and social psychology at Brigham Young University in 1970 and 71. He went on to take higher degrees in Administrative Sciences at Yale, gaining an MA in 1976 and his PhD in 1978.

From there he held a number of academic posts, at the Universities of Wisconsin, Colorado, Brigham Young, and Case Western, before taking his current dual post as Professor in both the School of Education and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in 2001.

There, he co-founded the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship; now the Center for Positive Organizations. This is the hub of Cameron’s research on Positive Organizational Scholarship, with a mission to help design high-performing organisations that bring out the best in people.

There was clearly a sea-change in Cameron’s thinking in the run-up to this. Between 1980 and 1988, he co-wrote five books on management and organisations, followed by a gap of 15 years, before ‘Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline‘ came out, co-edited with Jane Dutton and Robert Quinn. This is a collation of 23 scholarly papers that set about defining the discipline. This is brought up to date by the mammoth Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, which Cameron co-edited for publication in 2012.

What is Positive Organizational Scholarship?

Positive Organizational Scholarship (or POS) is a synthesis of many strands of research and thinking:

  • the organisational process that produces extraordinary outcomes (‘Positive Deviance’)
  • Organisational Design (OD)
  • Leadership
  • Positive Psychology
  • Creativity
  • Appreciative Inquiry (AI)
  • Citizenship behaviours and community psychology
  • Ethics and prosocial behaviour

Together, these things examine how to harness and develop human strengths in an organisational setting. At the core is the idea of ‘positive deviance’ and it advocates a focus on noticing, celebrating, and institutionalising behaviours, attitudes and processes that lead to extra-ordinary positive results. This is in contrast to a lot of organisational behaviours that currently focus around under-performance and finding corrective procedures.

This more familiar approach can certainly bring a poor organisation up to a baseline adequate standard of performance. POS suggests that to achieve excellence, organisations and their leaders and managers need to switch to an ‘affirmative bias’ and start to endorse the best, rather than critique the poor performances.

Culture Change

Back in 1988, Cameron co-authored Paradox and Transformation: Toward a Theory of Change in Organization and Management with Robert Quinn, but it was Making the Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Performance – the Rocky Flats Story that caught my attention (having been recommended it by project management blogger Positive Deviance.

This book searches out lessons to learn from the spectacular transformation of the project to clean up a highly contaminated nuclear site at Rocky Flats, Colorado. In the book, the authors, Cameron and his PhD student, Marc Levine, assert that a huge transformation in performance was generated by simultaneously pursuing four conflicting strategies.

They use the ‘Competing Values Framework’ developed by Cameron’s long-time collaborator, Robert Quinn. This suggests that organisations have a prevailing culture dictated by their values, along two dimensions of:

  1. Either: efficient internal processes or competitive external positioning
  2. Either: flexibility and adaptability or stability and incrementalism

The four cultures that result are oriented towards prevailing behaviours:

  • Clan Culture – internal/flexible – oriented towards collaboration
  • Adhocracy – external/flexible – oriented towards creation
  • Market culture – external/stable – oriented towards competing
  • Hierarchy – internal/stable – oriented towards control

The positive deviance that led to the phenomenal objective success* of the project was ascribed by Cameron and Levine to building an environment that equally valued all four elements of culture, and therefore demonstrated collaboration, creativity, competition, and control at the same time.


* Closure and decontamination of the facility was forecast to take 70 years and cost $36 billion. Out-turn cost was $6 billion, and the project was complete in 10 years

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