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.


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Since founding McDargh Communications & The Resiliency Group Eileen McDargh has helped organizations and individuals transform the life of their business and the business of their life through conversations that matter and connections that count. Her programs are content rich, interactive, provocative and playful—even downright hilarious. She draws upon practical business know-how, life's experiences and years of consulting to major national and international organizations that have ranged from global pharmaceuticals to the US Armed Forces, from health care associations to religious institutions. She is the author of five books, including Gifts from the Mountain: Simple Truths for Life's Complexities ,a Benjamin Franklin Gold Award winner. A training film based on this book was awarded the Silver Telly, the highest award for commercial productions. Her latest book was written to help everyone who is stretched too thin by competing demands My Get Up & Go Got Up & Went. As a business author and commentator, she’s appeared on network news, on radio programs and in business journals and in major metropolitan newspapers.

  • Peggy Dalton

    Eileen, innovators are “deviant.” They are resourceful in finding a solution or meeting a need. They are the truly agile ones.

    “We-have-always-done-it-that-way” does not bode well in today’s morphing environments that push for lean and increased productivity.

    • mcdargh

      You are so right ,Peggy. Think about the now-fabled “post’it note”. So many objects, systems, and processes can be improved and invented if we all practice a little deviance

  • Justin Pickering

    I love this. As a former public school/university instructor, I was always telling my students to be “revolutionary”. Find new ways to do new things. The future demands it. The wise man/woman once said: “If we always do what we’ve always done, we will always get what we’ve always gotten.” Bravery, boldness (but not brashness), and a sense of purpose comes into play for these “deviants” as well I would guess. Of the 2,000 or so students I had, the weird ones, the geeks, the socially marginalized kids, the techies, the Dungeons & Dragons/theater/band kids… they were always the most interesting. The rest kind of blended into a faceless blob of humanity playing Candy Crush on their cell phones. The future rests with the kid who walks to the beat of his own drum, who sees the world in a unique way, who acts on that vision, and who comes up with interesting and novel ideas that challenge the status quo. If you’ve looked around lately, things on this planet are NOT GOOD. It’s time to get out of the deviants way and let them save us from ourselves. GREAT POST EILEEN!!!

    • mcdargh

      Love the fact that you so value in teh students who were different. A great teacher always doe! Thanks for writing

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