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Positive Deviance: The Baby Steps to Success

by Jeremy McCarthy
Applying the principles of positive deviance, otherwise known as taking tiny steps in the right direction, over time, add up to significant growth and progress

being better

I am in the midst of a major life transition. After eight years with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, I have accepted a new position as the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, based in Hong Kong.  I decided to make the change for many reasons, but one of them was reading the mission statement that appeared on the Mandarin Oriental corporate website:

“Our mission is to completely delight and satisfy our guests. We are committed to making a difference every day; continually getting better to keep us the best.”

I know, you are probably thinking that a corporate mission statement pasted on a company’s website is not a good way to judge a company.  But the most important thing to me is to work somewhere where I can work authentically, expressing my true values.  If my mission and the organization’s mission are aligned, it should be a good fit.

And this mission statement captures exactly what I want to do with my life.  To serve others, to make a difference, and to be the best.  Not only do I want to be the best, but I want to do it the same way that Mandarin Oriental aspires to:  by “continually getting better” every day.

This philosophy of incremental improvement toward my best self is one I have followed most of my life.  Rather than focus on large distant goals, as common leadership advice prescribes, I try to be clear on what direction I want to go, and start making tiny steps in that direction.  Tiny steps in the right direction, over time, add up to significant growth and progress.

In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande investigates the idea of incremental “positive deviance” in medicine. The best performance in medicine, according to Gawande, does not come from massive efforts to solve the biggest problems. It happens when people ask unscripted questions to learn things they might not have otherwise learned; when people measure things, to know what works and what doesn’t; and when people make tiny incremental adjustments to get better over time.

Gawande highlights the medical accomplishments of Warren Warwick, the director of Fairfield University Children’s Hospital Cystic Fibrosis Center, who believed “that excellence came from seeing, on a daily basis, the difference between being 99.5 percent successful and being 99.95 percent successful.” What made Warwick a leader in his field was his relentless pursuit of tiny improvements in patients’ lung functioning. As Gawande says, “Medicine’s distinction is that lives are lost in those slim margins.”

Here are three questions you can ask every day to benefit from the power of incremental improvement:

What am I already doing well? Positive deviance usually comes not from tackling your biggest weaknesses but from building on your greatest strengths.

How do I measure progress? “Count something,” Gawande says. “One should be a scientist in this world.”

What can I do better today than I was doing yesterday? Experiment. Try something new. Push for forward progress, no matter how small.

It doesn’t matter if you are talking about medicine, martial arts or Mandarin Oriental. The key to excellence is the never-ending pursuit of “better.”

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