‘They are nutters, ignore them.’

When deviants save the day
Damian Whitworth
You know that oddball in the corner of the office? The one who does things in his own unique way? He is probably the cleverest person in the company
How well does your organisation work? I see, it’s like that, is it? The place relies on you and a handful of other highly motivated and extremely accomplished individuals to drive it along. Some of the rest do an OK job. Many are just unmotivated drones. And you’ve got nutters there too, have you? Yes, we know the sort you’re talking about. The strange guy in the corner who fiddles around all day with a computer program that nobody else understands. And the funny woman in that office at the end of the corridor who churns out reports that nobody reads. Can anyone explain the point of them?
But imagine if the unorthodox methods employed by these people were a more effective way of solving problems than you are using at the moment? What if the nutters were actually doing a better job than you?
Jerry Sternin calls these people positive deviants, and the process of bringing them in from the periphery of a group to improve the way it works is known as positive deviance. Sternin believes that positive deviants are everywhere. You just need to look for them. When you have found them, he believes, they can change your world.
It is unclear when the term positive deviance was coined but Sternin, a sprightly, white-haired former dean of Harvard Business School, has become the greatest evangelist for the idea that, it is said, can benefit every sort of group, from villages in the Third World to Wall Street investment banks. The Times caught up with him at the Saïd Business School in Oxford, where he was introducing his message to a British audience in a series of seminars.
Sternin began to explore the potential of “PD” when he was working as a director of the US arm of Save the Children. The story that he believes most clearly illustrates what PD is all about comes from his time working in Vietnam in the 1990s. Between 60 and 70 per cent of Vietnamese children under the age of 5 were malnourished. Sternin asked if any of the children from very poor families were well nourished. The surprising answer was yes, indicating that these families were doing something different from their peers. It transpired that the parents were collecting tiny shrimps and crabs from the rice fields and adding these, along with the greens from the tops of sweet potatoes, to the kids’ meals. This practice was contrary to the popular view in the community that these foods should not be given to children.
Sternin had found his positive deviants; individuals whose particular behaviour enables them to perform better than peers in the same environment and with the same resources. The challenge now was to persuade the rest of the community to follow the lead of the positive deviants and change their behaviour. This was done by inviting them to cook and eat with the mothers and children who were eating a better diet. The families began to adopt the better practices and by weighing the children at the beginning and end of a fixed period the parents were able to see an improvement in the health of their offspring.
By the end of a year more than 1,000 children had undertaken the nutrition sessions and 90 per cent had been lifted out of malnutrition. The model was copied throughout Vietnam and was picked up in other countries. Sternin claims that the nutrition programme has been replicated in some 25 countries.
He went on to use positive deviance in numerous environments, from villages in Egypt where only a handful of women were not circumcised to hospitals battling with MRSA. Corporations such as Goldman Sachs and Merck have started to dabble in PD.
As long as human beings have been living in communities, individuals have found ways of doing things differently from the rest of the pack and often those methods are eventually appreciated by the common herd and become the norm. But that is a haphazard process. Positive deviance is about focusing on the problem like a laser and then finding a solution from the edge of your vision.
To an outsider who has not been a manager of anything since bringing chaos to a student newspaper editor’s office, it is easy to view positive deviance as common sense. Of course we should be using people who are doing things well wherever they are in an organisation. “PD is un-common sense,” counters Sternin. In reality the norm is for organisations to be driven from the top down in a rigid management structure that does not easily allow for those on the fringes who are doing excellent work to be spotted and appreciated.
The received wisdom when looking at making changes is to examine best practice elsewhere. But the problem with employing best practice, says Sternin, is that this means importing a new way of doing things from the outside. This is fine if you are trying to solve a technical issue but if you are hoping to effect a social or behavioural change it is better to rely on the community to find the solution within itself.
He uses the analogy of organ transplants: the foreign body is often rejected by the new host. Similarly, a workforce that is told to adopt a new way of working is immediately suspicious because the implicit message is that somebody else is doing this better than you.
The trick, says Sternin, is deftly to give those who need to change “ownership” of the process so that they are motivated and enthusiastic about what is happening. “Ownership is the key,” he says. This is what he did with the families of malnourished children in Vietnam. He saw himself as a facilitator who ensured that the better way of feeding children was demonstrated to families by other families, not by him.
Sternin calls this process “make the group the guru”. He tells of a Save the Children project in Mali in which malnutrition among the children of a village was attributed to a sorcerer putting spells on them. But a few children were rarely sick. Inquiries revealed that the parents of these children were giving them extra snacks, the families were washing their hands and the fathers were involved in mealtimes. As these parents, the positive deviants, began sharing their simple method of domestic organisation, malnutrition in the village eased. “We have vanquished the sorceror,” said one grandmother. Sternin believes that in companies in the developed world the workforce are too ready to follow the lead of the sorcerer in the boss’s office and place blame for problems and responsibility for fixing them on the sorcerer’s head.

Positive deviance has started to appear in the corporate world. Grey Warner, head of the Latin American division of Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, started experimenting with PD in Mexico a couple of years ago after talking to Sternin. Sales of an osteoporosis drug were flat but Warner made inquiries as to how a few salespeople were performing well. He discovered that they were “working hard to have a relationship with doctors” rather than chasing as many sales as possible. They spent time explaining the science of the drug and which patients would most benefit from it.

The successful salesmen were encouraged to explain their methods to their peers. “The reps now engage with one another. It’s a more bottom-up kind of approach,” he says. This was a “subtle but profound difference. My experience is that if you actively engage the people that are doing the work in defining how they do it — they have ownership of it — you get better results. In the case of the performance of this product we saw improvement.” This idea of the community handling its own change is appealing to all those whose hackles are raised by the arrival of clipboard-carrying management consultants in their offices.

“When people get together socially in England, at some stage someone is bound to talk about the consultants that their organisation has brought in, who claim to have found the holy grail and are trying to fit everyone into the same shaped vessel,” says Penny Soper, a communications executive at Hertfordshire County Council who attended one of Sternin’s seminars. “Positive deviance was one of the most stimulating, commonsense ideas that I have come across in years.”

But don’t think that PD will necessarily free you from the consultants’ clutches. This seminar was hosted by Jane Lewis, herself a management consultant who hopes to use PD on future projects.

A doubt harboured by some of those at the Oxford seminar was that it would be difficult to persuade people of the worth of PD. It is all very well evolving through PD in life and death situations, where there is no issue about people lacking motivation to improve their lot. But in an office environment the motivation to change entrenched behaviours can be sorely lacking.

“The people who are not working well do not wish to change. There’s no incentive to improve,” said one seminar delegate. “Why should they bother? That’s probably true of 50 per cent of employees.”

Others said that they are under constant pressure to reduce costs and do not have the time for the lateral thinking that trying positive deviance involves. Sternin’s response: “If you are looking for sustained change you can’t afford the time not to do it. If you want sustained change without police monitoring, this is the way to do it.”

He admits that there are not positive deviants in every organisation or group. And if they are not there, then attempts to solve a problem through positive deviance cannot be made. PD is not the answer to all problems. It is a tool for addressing seemingly intractable problems.”

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to positive deviance being adopted by many organisations is that it requires leaders to cede power. Sternin says that leaders must become followers, setting aside their egos and being prepared to “relinquish to their community the job of chief discoverer”.

David Bolchover, a writer on management, is sceptical of how PD would work in practice because it relies on those in power loosening their grip. “Do big organisations reward conformity? I think so. I don’t think they reward people who go against the grain.”

If chief executives who are paid huge salaries to come up with answers were to pursue PD, says Bolchover, they would be questioning “the point of their own existence. Certainly they would be questioning their market worth.” At a time when CEOs are earning many times what most of their employees earn they are unlikely to adopt systems that assume that others have the answers. “If you go around saying people at the bottom have these abilities, why would there be great differentials in salaries?”

He suggests that it would also be impractical in big businesses. “There has to be a driver. There has to be a certain number of people coming up with new ideas and the rest have to follow. Otherwise there would just be anarchy.”

With Sternin writing a book about PD and more companies exploring his theories, the next few years promise to be a boom time for deviants. Certainly some oddballs on the fringes of organisations may find that they are being treated with more respect by their colleagues, or at the very least that they are the subject of increased interest and speculation. “It’s been an eye-opener for me,” said one delegate at the seminar from Portsmouth City Council. “Up until now I had said: ‘They are nutters, ignore them.’ Now I’ll be looking at them differently.”


NHS bosses may be interested in positive deviation after the news this week of a large increase in the number of deaths from a hospital superbug and a damning report about poor hygiene and inaction by hospital managers.

Jerry Sternin has recently worked in a hospital in Pittsburgh tackling the superbug MRSA. A couple of departments were doing this successfully through better hygiene practices. But while the other departments knew that washing their hands and thoroughly cleaning everything was what they should be doing, that didn’t mean that they did it. “You need to bridge the gap between knowledge and practice,” says Sternin.

By inviting every member of the staff, including those who worked nights and had never been consulted on anything before, to meetings about MRSA and asking for their advice on how best to improve hygiene, “it became a problem owned by everybody”. In the past six months there have been no surgical site infections, while in previous years there had been numerous cases.


A positive deviant is not always easy to spot. He is not necessarily the office oddball. He just does things differently. And more effectively. Follow the four Ds to find the deviant in your office:

1. DEFINE the problem you want to solve, ie, poor children are malnourished, or employees aren’t selling enough widgets.

2. DETERMINE if there are any individuals who exhibit the desired behaviour, ie, poor kids who are well nourished or employees who are selling more widgets than their peers.

3. DISCOVER what uncommon practices or strategies these deviants use to succeed, ie, they eat shrimp from the paddy field or visit fewer clients but spend more time with them explaining marvels of widgets.

4. DESIGN an intervention that would enable others in the community to grasp and practise the positive deviant behaviour, ie, encourage the kids with better diets to cook and eat with the malnourished kids or get the effective widget sales people to give a presentation to colleagues on their methods.



Well, pues de ahora en adelante, este será el espacio del Copy and Paste. No más compartir "mis emociones" aquí. He encontrado un espacio "íntimo" fuera del radar de los fisgones; en todo caso ando en un bache inspiracional que espero no duré mucho. Pero, ?qué hago? soy un incorregible chismosito, ya les estoy compartiendo mis pensamientos again. Alright, espero que disfruten estos artículos que publique acá. No más poemas o cuentitos personales. Oigan, pero neta que necesitan (con urgencia) unas clasecitas de pensamiento lateral; please, no me encasillen en un manojo de adjetivos que traten de definir mi personalidad. Sí hay un perfil – serial killer, maybe?- pero no es tán "sencillito" (dirían mis paisas los chés, ja). Echénle los kilos y les deseo buena suerte. Bien que se los advertí con suficiente anticipación:


Totally predictable for a mad scientist mind. Creativity is the key, and that’s completely chaotic (like all those positive deviants out there), mates.






Norwich, 26/7/06




 … What else should I write
I dont have the right
What else should I be
All apologies


"All Apologies." (Nirvana)



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