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Xperienced teachers will tell you that the most creative kid in the class isn’t the one who gets the highest marks. It’s the jester, the smart aleck, the dreamer in the back who’s doodling or reading Tolkien under the desk. With the proper motivation, that kid is bound to do something interesting later in life. The Deviant’s Advantage is a celebration of that person, and what he or she can offer, as a grown-up, to society and business. Think of the incredible innovations of the past 20 years. The computer and Internet revolutions weren’t ushered in by corporate product planning committees, but instead were led by highly idiosyncratic geeks. Microsoft Corporation’s Bill Gates, Apple Computer, Inc.’s two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak), and Netscape Communication Corporation’s whiz kid, Mark Andreeson-none of these guys could be described as conformist drones. Finding The Inner Deviant Well, duh, as a teenager might say. The idea that deviance can be productive and profitable isn’t exactly startling news. And as you continue through the book, the feeling lingers that you’re reading something you already know. But authors Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker-consultants based in, respectively, Detroit and Westport, Connecticut-have a bigger argument to make. They try to show how established businesses can succeed with ideas and products from far outside the mainstream, and how companies can prosper by embracing the inner deviant in every executive. In building their case, Watts and Mathews create a neologism, “devox” (deviant + vox, Latin for voice), which they define as the “voice, spirit, or incarnation of deviant ideas, products, and individuals.” Unfortunately, the term is used so often in the book, and in so many different contexts, that its meaning grows fuzzy. The authors become even more abstruse when they lapse into the out-there jargon that’s unfortunately too common in books of this ilk. Try to decipher this sentence, for example: “The devox’s disruption begins to produce an iterative, autocatalytic effect-not only is the commonly accepted reality eroded, but it’s replaced by an exponentially changing series of realities.” When the authors hit their stride, however, they successfully paint the devox as a revolutionary force that can tear down old notions, religions, and businesses. The devox creates as it destroys, and it can easily become a company’s greatest asset. In celebrating his personal deviance, Richard Branson created a worldwide brand with his Virgin empire and defined a hip lifestyle of consumption. The acolytes of Steve Jobs think that the Apple Macintosh is a work of art, and willingly pay more for a machine that nonbelievers consider slow. Even staid General Motors Corporation, in hiring former Chrysler Corporation iconoclast Robert Lutz as its product chief, has deemphasized focus groups and marketing studies in its development of new cars. The authors provide some cautionary tales of companies that weren’t attuned to the devox. In one, a retailer on a Spanish-speaking Caribbean island hired a new American CEO. The business went on to make all the right moves, offering competitively priced, quality goods in attractive stores. The company never prospered, however, and Watts and Mathews, called in as consultants, claim to know why. The CEO isolated himself from the local population and never got to know native tastes. In turn, his disdain was reflected in stores that locals considered snobbish. While it’s an instructive case, the point again seems too obvious. Displaying cultural sensitivity and adapting to local ways shouldn’t count as deviance-it’s just plain common sense. The Dark Side Of The Force Mathews and Watts also seem a bit naive in their celebration of deviance. While outside-the-box thinking may have given consumers some really cool toys, it can also be blamed for the recent epidemic of creative accounting and financial scandals. There’s no doubt that Enron Corp. execs were attuned to the devox when they structured those off-balance-sheet partnerships with names ripped off from Star Wars. And in their relentless hyping of the deviant few, the authors implicitly ignore everyone else. The dull, uncool masses admittedly aren’t the subject of this book, but they’re the ones who actually execute the brilliant plans of the wunderkinds, put a brake on really crazy ideas, and keep tabs on the bottom line. Its faults aside, The Deviant’s Advantage is an amusing read. Watts and Mathews have an encyclopedic knowledge of fringe and mainstream pop culture, as well as religious cults and business anecdotes. If reading this book inspires a timid marketing executive to throw caution to the wind and come up with a clever product or ad campaign, so much the better. But the authors’ mission might be futile. As all true deviants know, either you are one or you’re not. Paonita is the executive editor of Corporate Counsel.

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