Guarding Against A Normalization Of Deviance

Recently, I attended an industry event where I was reminded of the dangers of getting comfortable with “just getting by.” At the BASF Innovation Into Action Symposium, I heard a keynote address by Mike Mullane. A former astronaut and space shuttle pilot for NASA, Mullane talked to attendees about leadership and team-building. Although he was using examples from his days in America’s space program, his messages could easily apply to any business sector – including ag retail.


Mullane’s key point was that everyone everywhere needs to guard against what he calls the “normalization of deviance.” By definition, normalization of deviance is a long-term phenomenon in which individuals or teams repeatedly accept a lower standard of performance until that lower standard becomes the normal. “Usually, the acceptance of the lower standard occurs because the individual or team is under pressure, from budget consideration or schedule pressure, and perceives it will be too difficult to adhere to the expected standard,” said Mullane. “Over time, the individual/team fails to see this action as deviant.”

In many cases, he added, the individual/team plan to return to the expected standard once the period of pressures passes. However, most find this difficult to do or come to believe that since the lower standard has worked for so long, it’s okay to continue using it as the new benchmark.

Mullane pointed out this mindset plagued NASA engineers when it came to the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster O-rings. To keep shuttle missions flying on schedule, engineers accepted some damage to the O-rings as “within safety limits.” It was only after these same O-rings failed on the space shuttle Challenger, with the loss of vehicle and crew, that the agency went back to its original “no damage is acceptable” stance.

Given how the fortunes of ag retail have played out over the past few years – going from the giddy highs in 2007 to big inventory losses in 2009 – I’m sure our marketplace has had its share of “normalization of deviance” moments. Please feel free to share these with me at [email protected]. I would love to chance to share these with our readers.

We all need to guard against accepting lower standards in our businesses because it’s the easy thing to do. While people may not die as in the case of the Challenger disaster, serious damage to a long-standing operation can still occur.

Leave a Reply