Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Making use of the oddballs

Many organisations have an oddball character who sits in the corner of the office and does things in their own unique way. These people may very well be the cleverest and most valuable people in the company. You of course would dispute that wouldn’t you?

So how does your organisation work? Of course, you are the star and the place simply could not function without you. In your inner circle are a few highly driven and well motivated individuals who carry the whole business along. Some of your colleagues do an ok job, some are plainly not motivated and a waste of space and then there are the oddballs, the nutters who dress differently, crochet incessantly and go on caravanning holidays. What do they do apart from create endless piles of paper and tap on their calculators all day?

Just because these people use methods different from yours, it does not mean they are wrong. There ways of solving problems could be more effective than yours. What if they actually were doing a better job than you?

Jerry Sternin, former dean of Harvard Business School has labelled these people as positive deviants (PDs) and the process by which their activities are brought from the fringes of a group into the mainstream is termed positive deviance.

Sternin, has many case studies and examples of these types but his principle is that PDs should be used to change the behaviour of their peers so that improved practices are taken on and owned by the wider group, by a proves he calls ‘making the group the guru’. This is more effective than simply calling in outside experts and blindly following their instructions.

The beauty of this method is that it works in social as well as business environments. To see of you have a positive deviant in your office that can help you solve a particular problem, use Sternin’s 4 Ds:

  1. Define the problem that you wish to solve.e.g. salesmen are not selling enough widgets

  2. Determine if there are any deviants who exhibit the required behaviour e.g salesmen who are outselling their peers

  3. Discover what uncommon practices or strategies these people use to succeed e.g. less sales visits but explaining the marvels of widgets to customers

  4. Design an intervention that would enable others in the group to grasp the positive deviant behaviour e.g. allow salesmen to shadow deviants or get deviants to demonstrate their methods

Note this is not dissimilar to spreading best practice, the one huge difference is that positive deviance is not imposed from outside.

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