Modeling After Your Positive Deviants
A Quick and Simple Template for Personal and Organizational Transformation
by Zainal Abidin Rahman B Sc, ACCA, MA

“You must be out of your mind!” my client said when I suggested she cultivates and learns from the positive deviants in her organization. Deviants? Positive deviants? Isn’t that word an oxymoron? The CEO obviously didn’t like the word. I had some explanation to do.

Back to Vietnam in the 1990s
My work in Solution Focus coaching brought me to the concept of positive deviance. It started innocently enough. In the 1990s, the Vietnamese government invited Jerry Sternin, Director of Save the Children, a Non-profit Organization, to study malnutrition among Vietnamese children. In all the villages he visited, Sternin found starving children. As an “expert”, it was easy enough to suggest the usual external solutions in the form of aids from foreign governments. But that would be a temporary solution and would do nothing to make the villagers self-sufficient.

Sternin further saw that among the hundreds and thousands of starving children in each village, there was a handful of children who were well fed and thriving. He traced these healthy children to their mothers and found that these mothers behaved differently from the typical village mothers. These mothers were going out every day to the paddy fields and collecting tiny shrimps and crabs which they added, along with sweet potato shoots, to their children’s meals. They also fed their children three or four times a day rather than the typical twice a day. These mothers were the original positive deviants - they obtained outstanding results for their children’s health despite facing similar problems as the other mothers (and also mainly because they ignored conventional village wisdom that the foods were inappropriate for young children).

Rolling out
Sternin organized a program to teach the feeding habits of these positive deviant mothers to other village mothers. Within two years, 80% of the families participating in the project no longer had malnourished children. More importantly, they achieved this feat entirely by using resources already available in the villages. Since then, this model for looking out for positive deviants within the community itself to solve prevalent problems has been rolled out in many countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mali, Indonesia, etc) across several social issues (Aids infection, trafficking of young girls for prostitution, overcoming the village sorcerer’s spell, ethnic conflict, etc).

Unique advantages
This model has three unique advantages over traditional approaches that try to impose solutions from outside:
1. Progress is made rapidly without requiring detailed analysis or outside resources;
2 The resulting benefits can be sustained since the solution to the problem has been proven to work within the community;
3. The model can be broadly applied since positive deviants exist in virtually every community or social issue.

What about business organizations then?
Sure organizations too can use positive deviants to spearhead changes according to Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin in their HBR article (“Your Company’s Secret Change Agents”) of May 2005. They devised a 6 - step positive deviance model as follows:
Step 1: Make the group the guru
Step 2: Reframe through facts
Step 3: Make it safe to learn
Step 4: Make the problem concrete
Step 5: Leverage social proof
Step 6: Confound the immune defense response

Actually, the approach of learning the skills of a positive deviant and then teaching them to others isn’t exactly a recent phenomenon. In early 1970s, Richard Bandler and John Grinder studied the skills of Milton Erickson, Virginia Satir and Fritz Perls, all change agents extraordinaire themselves, and taught the skills to others. Unknown to them at the time, they spun a whole new industry called Neuro Linguistic Programming. The process of learning the skills was called modeling; the positive deviants were called exemplars. Bandler’s and Grinder’s approach is, however, pitched at the individual and seldom, if ever, works at the organizational level. Subsequent refinements by William Seidman, involving the use of coaching using computer software, has enabled organizational transformation to be highly effective and predictable.

Adapting from NLP and the works of Seidman, I have come up with a 3 step process which can virtually predict organizational transformation in any domain of choice. Briefly, the steps are:

1. Identifying the Positive Deviants (PDs)

In domains such as sales, everyone in the organizations knows who the superstars are. They are the ones who bring in twice, five or even 20 times the income of the average salesperson. They are at the extreme positive end of the normal curve. In other, less quantitative, domains (e.g. engineering maintenance, accounting, HR,), identifying the PDs may not be so obvious. Their performances are usually affected and complicated by affinity issues. They may, however, generally be identified by asking 2 simple questions of the key workforce:
1. Within that domain, who are the most respected persons inside this organization?
2. Of those who are respected, which one will you call and will do whatever they tell you to do because you trust them?

Trust is an important factor because of the credibility factor – “If you can succeed, I too can succeed if I just know how.”

Getting the PDs to cooperate to reveal their winning formula depends on many factors; most of which are within the influence or control of management. The important thing is to assure them that they will not lose out in this project.

2. Harvesting the PD’s “winning formula”
Seidman calls the special set of skills which enable the PDs to function at their high level as their “secret sauce.” I prefer to call it simply as the “winning formula” or “winning recipe.” This formula resides in the interplay of the PDs’ domains of knowledge, skills and attitude.

While a PD, say in sales, may be able to tell you the secrets of his super ability to create high volumes of sales, much of the formula is actually operational at the unconscious competence level. What they consciously know is but a tiny fraction of their real winning formula. It would take a coach skilled in NLP deep probing questioning techniques (especially Roger Bailey’s Language and Behavior Profile) to bring components of the unconscious competence to awareness. The interview could last 6 – 10 hours. The elicitations of inner motivational and other strategies as frequently taught in NLP trainings are also needed but are inadequate by themselves.

Studies have shown that PDs of whatever domains have one common universal component in their winning formula and that is they are all driven by a higher social or moral imperative. What most people inadequately describe as “passion”. The moralistic story of the man who is “building a cathedral” as opposed to the one who’s just laying bricks or building a wall has much validity Knowledge Attitude Skills after all! Other components of the formula include the way they categorize their field, point and mode of action, estimation and response to risk factors, etc. At the end of the interview, we will have a good picture and feel of the winning formula that make the PDs fly at their stratospheric heights. We are now ready for the next step.

3. Transferring the PD’s “winning formula” to the rest of the workforce
What we have at this stage is knowledge of the PDs’ formula. Like all other knowledge, it has value only when it is used by the wannabes or shall we call them DPDs (Developing Positive Deviants).

There are three crucial sub-steps in ensuring DPDs will ultimately become PDs.

a. Initial engagement
Because of the credibility of the PDs, there is an immediate change in mindset and behavior of DPDs on first exposure to the formula. Seidman estimates that the change happens within 8 minutes of exposure. The roadmap to PDhood and abundance is now laid bare before DPDs for their easy picking! However, this initial burst of excitement is commonly short-lived and is replaced by a lethargic feeling of “been there; done that” unless quickly followed up by the next 2 sub-steps. They are absolutely critical in making the transformation complete and predictable.

b. Subsequent Reinforcement
Crucial aspects of the formula that’s relevant to a particular DPD need to be reinforced. And the reinforcement can only be done by the DPD himself or herself - for a period of at least 3 weeks. The reinforcement takes only 5 minutes each day but is absolutely essential. A pre- scheduled call to a personal coach is helpful.

To further add to their drive, at this stage I usually expose the DPDs to their Enneagram style. The enneagram is a personality profile which I find particularly useful as it explains people’s behaviors as well as their underlying motivations and values. It charts where the DPD currently is and where he wants to be as part of a holistic package of personal growth and development strategies. Most people not only want to be PDs in their chosen domain, but also a good parent, husband, wife, son, daughter, etc. When the specific changes to becoming a PD is seen in the context of a raft of strategies toward becoming a better and more wholesome person, the DPDs begin to get in touch with the deeper emotional meanings of those specific changes. Self- motivation shoots up.

c. Management commitment:
Top management commitment is crucial. Too many change initiatives take place where management gives the go-ahead only to move on to other “more important” matters, leaving the change initiatives to lower levels. As soon as staff detect top management has shifted its attention, the expected changes pretty soon get aborted. Management commitment is required in the form of almost daily management interaction with DPDs on four basic issues:
i. What are you now doing against the development plan?
ii. What will you be doing next week?
iii. Are you in or out of alignment with your plan?
iv. How can I help?

As mentioned earlier, the big advantage of modeling the organization’s positive deviants to effect changes is that the changes can happen rapidly and are sustainable. The positive deviants have shown that performance at a much higher level is doable in the context and circumstances of the organization. That’s a testimony no new externally imposed solution can claim.

• The Power of Positive Deviancy Jerry Sternin & Robert Choo

HBR Jan-Feb 2000
• Your Company’s Secret Change Agents – Richard Pascale & Jerry Sternin HBR May 2005
• Words That Change Minds – Shelle Rose Charvet

Zainal is a business trainer and coach specializing in personal and organizational change. He has worked with thousands of clients, individuals and corporate, and brings with him expertise in OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram, energy psychology and various other effective modalities that create change at the personal and corporate levels. Contact:

Zainal is a business trainer and coach specializing in personal and organizational change. He has worked with thousands of clients, individuals and corporate, and brings with him expertise in OD, HR, NLP, ericksonian hypnosis, Solutions Focus, Appreciative Inquiry, The Enneagram, energy psychology and various other effective modalities that create change at the personal and corporate levels. Contact:

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