Becoming a Positive Deviant

One of my author-speaker heroes is a physician named Atul Gawande, a surgeon based in Boston who is also a regular contributor to the New Yorker. Best known for his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things RightDr.Gawande wrote an earlier book called Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. The audiobook was on sale at my favorite Tempe, AZ, bookstore, Changing Hands, so I bought it thinking I could listen to it in my car. And in spite of the many clinical stories he told, some of which made me a bit queasy–after all, the guy is a doctor–I enjoyed the book. In the afterword, the author provided five tips for improving performance by becoming a “positive deviant.”

First, let me share the definition of “positive deviant.” People who do things outside the norm (often unknowingly) that have a good outcome are “positive deviants,” and they change the world, whether by improving the nutritional health of children in a village or stopping an epidemic. The book Better can be applied to all of us, though, not just physicians and healthcare workers. Here are those five tips on performance improvement and how they can apply to you and your business or career:

  1. Ask an unscripted question. Whether you’re in business or excelling at your job, you’re called upon to educate, inform and ultimately, to persuade (some call it “selling”). The best way to engage people to think is to ask an unscripted question, one they weren’t expecting. I know I’ve hit a chord when I ask an unscripted question and the person across from me pauses, looks up at the ceiling and takes some time to think before responding. Unscripted questions open up a whole range of possibilities that weren’t there before.
  2. Don’t complain. What a great piece of advice for us all! No one wants to hear our litany of concerns, petty or otherwise, and besides, complaining is bad for your brand. I’m not suggesting you be a phony or a Pollyanna; just have something substantive to say. Today, catch yourself before you complain and substitute a conversation that will really make a difference with the person you’re speaking to.
  3. Count something. “What gets measured gets managed,” according to the late great management guru Peter Drucker. Setting up metrics, whether its in the form of sales calls, revenue or client/customer satisfaction data, is critical to moving the needle. Without data, there is no needle. What can you count today that will move you toward your goal?
  4. Write something. My dad used to say that to me whenever we talked about my vision to become a writer. “Don’t just sit there–write something!” he would bellow with a grin. Writing is an act of courage, whether it’s keeping a journal, launching a blog, writing a poem or contributing a letter to the editor of a news organization. Writing is also a powerful way to connect with your audience, whoever that is. “The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it,” says Dr. Gawande in his afterword. What will you write today to contribute to your audience?
  5. Change. Try something new. Become an early adopter. Recognize that there are gaps in your performance and seek ways to bridge those gaps. Our work lives are filled with uncertainties and failures, so it may seem best to keep doing things the way you’ve been doing them. Resist that impulse. What one thing will you change today in your business or your job that will fill a gap in your performance?

I love sharing my thoughts with you via this blog and invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section, below. What are you counting, writing, changing? What complaints will you give up to strengthen your brand? What’s a great unscripted question you’ve created to get your clients or employees to open up to you? “Ask people what they think,” Dr. Gawande recommends at the end of his book. “See if you can keep the conversation going.”

So, what do you think?

[Photo: An elevator sign, taken at Taipei 101, formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center, a landmark skyscraper in Taipei, Taiwan]