Defend your Deviants
Freeing ourselves and others from learned limitations does not happen through edict but by inquiry. Technical problems can be resolved without changes to the social structure, but that is only 20% of the work say authors Richard Pascale and social change pioneers Jerry and Monique Sterns in The Power of Positive Deviance. Changing cultural norms or behaviors in a complex social system requires that the community must want to discover the solutions for themselves. Leaders of social change must learn to take a back seat and allow team members to reveal the wisdom within their own ranks. In every situation there are “outliers”, people who with the same resources just do better. Often these are not those at the top of the hierarchical structure but those closest to the problem who, through the impetus of necessity, have found simple solutions to often very complex and seemingly intractable problems.
The solution that struck closest to home for me in this book resulted in a 30-62% reduction in an infection that kills 20,000 people each year. Where is the best place to catch this infection…at your local hospital. MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is present in two-thirds of hospitals, and was most likely the largest contributing factor to my father-in-law’s death two years ago. He contracted the infection while visiting a friend in the VA Hospital, and experienced the excruciating onset while staying with us on the 4th of July. Read full article “You meet the nicest people in the Emergency Room”.
The solution came as an insight from an orderly at the VA Medical Center in Pittsburgh. Listening to a patient report how reassuring it was each time he heard the squish of the disinfectant dispenser, the orderly thought “what if we put the dispensers in front of the patients?” By putting the solution “in sight” they created both an awareness and social support system for encouraging proper hand sanitizing. The solution was not sexy or technical and it didn’t come from the ivory tower of innovation, but from listening to the insight of an orderly resulting in the solution to an infection that has increased 32-fold between 1976 and 2004.
Think about this from a leadership perspective. I am sure there are mountains of manuals describing just exactly the process that every member of the hospital team should use in washing and disinfecting their hands. At the same time there is the “social pressure” to keep up and do more that unlike the manuals or placards is ever-present. Only by encouraging team members to discover the wisdom within their own positive deviants was there enough change in the social construct to support lasting behavioral transformation.