The Next Level – Become a Change Artist

My last post argued for recognizing and adopting the innovative practices of positive deviance. Now I’m suggesting you can become one. Identifying and adopting the strategies of positive deviants can be a powerful accelerant in your work, your play. I’m talking about being a Change Artist – creating new, unique change in positive and pro-social ways.

First, what’s positive deviance:

Positive deviance focuses on those extreme cases of excellence when organizations and their members break free from the constraints of norms to conduct honorable behaviors. – Gretchen Spreitzer, University of Michigan

Change artists do at least these four key things constantly, always:

  1. Replace fear with curiosity: First get out of your comfort zone. Often fear motivates stagnation, and the fear of failing can drive people to not try new or challenging things outside their competence, and thus finally fulfill The Peter Principle and arrive at their own level of incompetence.
  2. Experiment: Familiar with the story of WD-40? Some engineers were trying to make a rust-preventative by displacing water on metal surfaces, thus “water displacement #40” because it took them 40 recipes to get it right. Try things and don’t give up.
  3. Reach out for ideas: Even poets, writers and sculptors in their private studios are collaborators – always building on open-sourced collaborations. Whether you reach out personally to colleagues, or scour the web for ideas, when you reach beyond your own expertise with an open mind, the resulting collaborative effort will yield more powerful results
  4. Count things: Become a scientist about it. Anything directly or indirectly related to your goals are worth keeping track of, because the numbers will lead to questions, and the questions will lead to change. If you run a restaurant, count the number of kids who order Shirley Temples, or how long your typical wait list is on a Friday night. What you count becomes what you think about, and what you ultimately choose to change.

Positive deviance can also happen on an organizational level.  Previously I posted about Merck during the dark Vioxx days, but Merck has deviated from the norm in positive pro-social ways too.  In 1978 Merck inadvertently created a potential cure for river blindness – a painful and debilitating disease that affects millions in developing nations around the world.

They had a choice to think like a capitalist and mine the bottom of the pyramid market with this new drug, drop the project due to daunting manufacturing and distribution costs, or… be true to their founder’s words:  “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people.  It is not for profits.  The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they never fail to appear.” – George Merck II

In spite of the fact that the manufacturing and distribution was greater than what the 3rd world market could bear, in spite of the fact that Merck lacked the infrastructure to effectively distribute the medication, in spite of the fact that the drug wasn’t mass market-tested and they were unsure what the medication’s effect would be at scale, and in spite of the fact that they risked Wall-street confidence by investing against earnings because there was no foreseeable profit and a 250 million dollar price tag – despite all this, since 1987 Merck has donated more than 2.5 billion tablets of MECTIZAN in more than 30 countries worldwide and protected over 100 million people from this debilitating disease.