Learn from Positive Deviants

On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, at age 42, refused to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. In her own words, she was “tired of giving in.”

As a popular Zen Buddhist story goes:
Two monks were returning to the monastery in the evening. It had rained and there were puddles of water on the road sides. At one place a beautiful young woman was standing unable to walk accross because of a puddle of water. The elder of the two monks went up to a her lifted her in his alms and left her on the other side of the road, and continued his way to the monastery.

In the evening the younger monk came to the elder monk and said, “Sir, as monks, we cannot touch a woman.”
The elder monk answered “yes, brother”.
Then the younger monk asks again, “But then Sir, how is that you lifted that woman on the roadside?”
The elder monk smiled at him and told him ” I left her on the other side of the road, but you are still carrying her.”

What common dogmas are you abiding by? In our world, our work, our life, we commonly see others, and ourselves, abiding by principles and ideas we take for granted, for truth. Yet some of these ideas we intuit naturally that they don’t seem quite right. Some of these ideas may be unchallenged, but our conscious knows. Choose carefully, but if you have a better idea contrary to collective beliefs and ideals, act on them and see who follows. If you persevere with resolve and conviction, the truth with out.

Positive deviance is a bottom-up, not top-down, approach to innovation that systemically recognizes people doing innovative behaviors and adopting them for universal use. Consider the story of Jasper Palmer, a transport medical worker at Albert Einstein Medical Center, who noticed that the gowns and gloves he and other staff wore while moving patients infected with a virulent Staphylococcus virus were overwhelming the hospital’s trash cans. The piles of discarded attire spilled out of disposal bins onto the floor, contaminating surrounding surfaces. So Mr. Palmer devised his own method: He took off his gown, rolled it up into the size of a baseball, and pulled his gloves over it to contain it in a tight package. This simple innovative behavior then became taught and part of the common behavior of all medical technicians.

“Positive deviance uses a process of interviews to highlight these people’s solutions and spread them throughout the community. Rather than imposing externally defined best practices, as is common in many quality-improvement initiatives, it generates solutions from within.” – Curt Lindberg, Chief Learning and Science Officer at the Plexus Institute