The Power of Positive Deviants – A Resiliency Resource

in Living by Emily Snell

The Power of Positive Deviants – A Resiliency Resource

The Power of Positive Deviants – A Resiliency Resource

“Deviants.” It’s a word that brings up images of wild-eyed folks who defy social norms; people who inhabit the lower reaches of the socio-economic scale; misfits and outcasts.

Stop! What makes this word essential in a world of challenge and change is that single adjective: “positive”.

The more I explore the world of resiliency, sustainability and leadership, I have come to value people who have the courage to be positively deviant. These are the people who turn left when everyone else turns right and in doing so, find a way to solve problems no one else considered.

Sadly, organizations can be so hide-bound that managers ignore the lone voice in the wilderness; one that really should be considered. Allan McDonald was just such a deviant. McDonald, the director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for the engineering contractor Morton Thiokol, was concerned that below-freezing temperatures might impact the integrity of the solid rockets’ O-rings in the space shuttle Challenger. He was so concerned that he refused to sign the launch recommendation papers the night before the launch.

The rest is history. Lives were lost and McDonald was demoted and removed from the project. But the Presidential commission that evaluated the disaster eventually vindicated McDonald, who chose to stay on with Morton Thiokol. He was reinstated to his position and put in charge of the redesign and requalification of the solid rocket motors.That decision led to 110 safe shuttle missions.

How to Use the Power of Positive Deviants:

  • Ask what is the upside and the downside of listening to the ideas of a “deviant”
  • Evaluate and rank order the potential impacts of listening to the lone voice. What does it mean in human life, cost, reputation, quality, and possibly brand identity?
  • Be willing to, as my mother used to say, “Eat humble pie. This means the senior manager might need to admit to a potential error, change a preferred direction, or extend a deadline. But the willingness to do so will boost the trust level of her team

In their fascinating book The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, Richard Pascale, an Associate Fellow of Staid Business School, Oxford and the husband  and wife team of Jerry and Monique Sternin, Director of Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts University, teach us that deviants are often unlikely innovators who solve tough problems.

In their book this amazing threesome explored a powerful approach to change. Through examples that range from children with malnutrition in Vietnam, to Genentech sales associates who defied the standard protocol for selling a drug and went on to produce great results (only to be shut down because it defied the normal procedure), the authors offer solid advice on how to look widely and differently for solutions.

The skill of adaptability as a cornerstone for resiliency is strengthened by this methodology:

Be Open to Positive Deviants

  • Look for exceptions to the rule. Push aside conventional wisdom and search for the few who might be breaking the rules with positive results.
  • Those who have the problem own the problem. Look for positive deviants to become evangelists. It is more believable to have someone who has encountered an issue and solved it, versus a random researcher or consultant to pronounce a solution.

In the end it takes courageous leaders to look far and wide, across and down to find positive deviants. Long ago, while doing work for U.S. Steel I spoke with an operator who managed one of the massive melting operations. From his vantage point in a glass enclosed deck, he snorted, gestured to the corporate headquarters up the road and said, “I retire in a few weeks. I know how we could do better and improve our process but no one from headquarters ever bothers asking me. Heck – they never even walk over here.”

Leaders, consider the search for positive deviants to be one of your main jobs. Like an anthropologist, you will need to mingle with the people. You might find fascinating results.

About the Author

Emily Snell

Emily is a contributing marketing author at where she regularly consults on content strategy and overall topic focus. Emily has spent the last 12 years helping hyper growth startups and well-known brands create content that positions products and services as the solution to a customer's problem.

Full Biography

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