Getting Better - When deviance is not a rude word

When a Headteacher handed me a copy of “Better” on the last day of term, I was intrigued. By Monday of the half term break I was bemused. What could an American surgeon have to say that could translate to a school setting? 

I was riveted by some fascinating descriptions of how field hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan had evolved to save more lives in the battlefield. On a really bad day, a classroom may become a war zone, but even in inner city schools we don’t generally have an issue with treating bullet wounds. I wasn’t really seeing the classroom. 

On Tuesday, it took me on a trip through India with a programme to vaccinate 4.5 million children against polio in just four days. Logistically challenging, but still not seeing our education system. 

By Wednesday I was a convert, and determined to tap into my inner rebel. 

Statistics, measurements and normal distributions are everywhere. National and local league tables can thrill or terrify and it is here that the relevance begins. The bell curve is an inevitability of performance targets. At the one end, the exceptional, the other, well, deemed as failures no matter how good (or it has to be said, bad) the results look in isolation. 

Improvement programmes shift the bell curve, and no matter what we think of measurements, that bell curve is here to stay. The point at which you are considered “good” moves, so standing still translates to going backwards. Recognising this is the first step to getting better. 

The author notes that high performing organisations do something different, are deviant. Different however does not always mean innovation or technical development; sometimes it simply means using all of what we know more effectively. Don’t get me wrong – innovation is important, but it is not the whole picture.

Deviating from the norm can be scary, but rebrand it as pioneering and suddenly we’re in the realms of the exciting. Rebrand again to “positive deviance” and that’s where that inner rebel I mentioned woke up. 

“Better” talks of five steps to “positive deviance”. There is a recognition that there may be much that cannot be controlled, but where there is some control, for example over your own skills, you can seek betterment. Be part of a wider world, that can share stories, learning yourself and contributing the learning of others.

There are five suggestions for becoming a “positive deviant”, which starts with “ask an unscripted question”. We all use scripts in our everyday practice. Mine usually start with what’s the person’s name, what do they do and what have they done or not done (or words to that effect). Asking unscripted questions gives us all a human connection. Not everyone will want to engage, being too busy themselves to stray off script, and that’s ok. If not, listen. If you’ve asked the question, listen to the answer. You may learn something new, it may give you a creative solution to something you’ve been mulling. It may simply make you smile. 

The second suggestion is “don’t complain”. It is dispiriting for you and those around you. Work has been undertaken on “positive psychology” over recent decades, and there seems to be something in it. Being positive makes you positive. I’m happy to give that a go. 

The third suggestion is to count something. In education, I’m not sure how much more there is to count, so we’re pretty much there already. However, if there is an area causing you a problem, find a way to measure it. It could be absence; measure it, locate the problem. Is it support staff, teachers, pupils?! Counting it means you can see what you’re changing and measure it.

I got excited at the fourth suggestion; write something. I now have a proper excuse for writing these articles! Writing could be anything. It could be a poem, a blog or a professional journal article, but the important thing is to make some observation of the world around you, no matter how small. The physicist John Ziman is quoted; “The invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of ‘fragments’ of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science”. This collective know-how has far greater power than a lone individual can achieve. Any jigsaw puzzle is made up of small pieces, without which you don’t get the full picture. I guess the corresponding point here is to read what others have written or observed. 

The final suggestion is to change. Be an early adopter and look for opportunities to change. Identify the inadequacies of what you do and fix them. Seek those solutions, make those opportunities to develop. Ask for help if you need to. This is not about indiscriminate change for change’s sake; count how often you succeed. Count how often you fail. Learn from the latter. Write about it, ask people what they think about it and keep the conversation going.

There will always be people who are too afraid to do the above. Who would rather be within one standard deviation of the mean, the safe zone.  Deviance is not a rude word. I’ve decided I want to be a deviant. An HR Director of mine once told me that sometimes it is easier to beg for forgiveness than to seek permission. Of course, if it’s successful no forgiveness is required. But, just to reassure my boss (who will be proof reading this before it reaches you) – my final piece of advice would be to know your limits. Know the unforgivable, and stay on the right side of that line. 

Inspired by ‘Better: a surgeons notes on performance’, Gawande A., Profile Books, London

PS – any other “must read” book recommendations?This article was originally posted on the SPS website.  Read more SPS news and updates at https://the-sps.co.uk/news



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