rules for positive deviance

bell curve

Atul Gawande ends his latest book Better with a set of rules for positive deviance. This is building on the idea that performance in most fields follows a bell curve, and that if you want to end up in the good tail, you need to take steps to deviate from the norm in that direction. Since the book is about medicine, most of his examples are from that field, however, it is a pretty good roadmap for being a good innovator as well. His steps are:

  1. Ask an unscripted question – don’t just go through the script when you’re talking with people – ask them something (anything!) personal. “It’s not that making this connection necessarily helps anyone. But you start to remember the people you see, instead of letting them blur together. And sometimes you discover the unexpected.”
  2. Don’t complain – “The natural pull of conversational gravity is towards the litany of woes all around us. But resist it. It’s boring, it doesn’t solve anything, and it will get you down. You don’t have to be sunny about everything, just be prepared with something else to discuss: an idea you read about, an interesting problem you came across…”
  3. Count something – “One should be a scientist in this world. In the simplest terms, this means one should count something… It doesn’t really matter what you count. You don’t need a research grant. the only requirement is that what you count should be interesting to you… If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.”
  4. Write something – “It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world… by offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world… The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it. So choose your audience. Write something.
  5. Change – “Look for the opportunity to change. I am not saying you should embrace every new trend that comes along. But be willing to recognize the inadequacies in what you do and seek out solutions. As successful as medicine is, it remains replete with uncertainties and failure. This is what makes human, at times painful, and also worthwhile… So find something new to try, something to change. Count how often you succeed and how often you fail. Write about it. Ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

Gawande is a fabulous writer, and I think that these suggestions have general utility. Following these suggestions will make you better at whatever you do. Innovating is all about change, so the last poitn is obviously useful for innovators. But I’m also a big believer in the value of counting and writing – they feed a propensity towards action – which is another central part of innovation.

I’m going to give them a try. How about you?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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8 thoughts on “rules for positive deviance

  1. I’m soo glad you introduced me to Gawande, Tim. I’ve ordered it from the library. I see his upcoming is “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.”

    I have to confess to not understanding #3. I like being a lay scientist, but I have to admit I don’t know where counting comes into it..

  2. I think the point with counting is that it gives you data – and it’s probably unique data. So, like he says, you end up learning something interesting. I know that some of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had as a manager have happened after I’ve just had people count things, and track them using a pencil & paper…

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