The idea of "positive deviance" has been around for some time, and it has been successfully used in making positive changes in seemingly intractable problems ranging from malnourished children in Vietnam to lowering the rate of hospital infections to solving business concerns in major corporations.
Now there is a book that brings all the information about positive deviance together, including many case studies from the field. The book is The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems, by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, Monique Sternin (Harvard Business Press, 2010).
Simple but Complex
Positive deviance is both simple and complex. It involves the identification of people who manage to thrive in a situation where most fail; figuring out what those people are doing that is different from the majority; and then getting everyone to engage in the same actions, thereby solving the problem.
The best known example of positive deviance is the story of how Jerry Sternin and his wife Monique used the technique in Vietnam to turn around a dire situation where children were dying of malnutrition. The Sternins worked for Save the Children and were given only six months by the Vietnamese government to get results. There was no time for studies and approaches that would attack "root causes." They needed a fast, simple, approach that would save lives within a short period of time.
The Sternins used the positive deviance approach by helping people in one village realize that there were children who, despite living in an identical situation as everyone else, nevertheless managed to thrive. Once the "positive deviants" were identified, their feeding practices were observed to identify what was different from the norm. They found that the parents of these children were supplementing their diets with small shrimp, crabs, and some greens gleaned from the rice paddies; that the children were fed small portions several times a day; and that the parents washed their children's hands and their own frequently during feeding times.
People of that village then ran workshops where parents learned how to use these behaviors to benefit their own children. The results were quite encouraging, and the model was extended to other villages. The people themselves had discovered their own strengths, taught those to their neighbors and were, at long last, freed from the cycles of boom and bust that usually accompany outside aid. They had a sustainable process in place that only they were responsible for.
Although simple on the surface, the positive deviance method is actually quite revolutionary and requires considerable change in behavior on the part of the outside helpers and within the culture itself. The Sternins had to forgo their role as "experts" and let the villagers discover the answers themselves. The local culture had to overcome an innate dread of outsiders and several cultural habits.
For instance, the shrimp, crabs and greens that the positive deviant parents were feeding their children were not considered to be "acceptable" foods for children; normal feeding patterns called for only two meals for children a day - once in the morning when the parents went to work and again when they returned at the end of the day. Supplemental feedings required the help of relatives and neighbors. Clean hands when eating was not considered to be important. Because the solutions came from within the culture, these changes were accepted. The proof of their efficacy through monitoring the children, weighing them and seeing their own children get better overcame cultural taboos and resulted in permanent change.
The authors of The Power of Positive Deviance point out that PD is suitable for "adaptive" problems, where changes in behavior are the answer. The authors say:
"The PD process is a tool for adaptive work. Unfortunately, we are drawn instinctively to the 'technical' stuff--the 'what' (specific practices and tools that make the individual positive deviants successful). That's the easy part--and only 20 percent of the work. What matters far more is the 'how'--the very particular journey that each community must engage in to mobilize itself, overcome resignation and fatalism, discover its latent wisdom, and put this wisdom into practice. This bears repeating: the community must make the discovery itself. It alone determines how change can be disseminated through the practice of new behavior--not through explanation or edict."
What comes out of the PD process should not be confused with the "best practices" that we all are familiar with in our organizations. "Best Practices" are typically identified by those at the top and then presented to everyone else for adoption. PD, on the other hand, is based on discovery by the practitioners themselves, which promotes buy in, acceptance, and change.
Although PD has been most often used in social change situations, some companies have used it with varying degrees of success. The book has case studies of its use by Merck, Genentech, and Goldman Sachs. Within a business setting, the process of PD is truly revolutionary, given the adherence to a command and control method of management that has existed since the industrial revolution.
I found this book to be extraordinary. The positive deviancy idea is a fresh solution for the aid community and maybe even for business. I found the case studies in the book riveting, from the Vietnam experience to alleviating the terrible infant mortality rate in Pakistan to changing the belief systems that allow female circumcision in Egypt.
We have all encountered the feeling of craziness when we discover that, even though we have an answer and we tell people about it, the changes we hope for simply do not occur.
The pivotal insight that comes from the practice of PD is, as the authors of this book maintain, "It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting."
- Positive Deviance Initiative
- The Power of Positive Deviants Boston Globe article, 11/29/09
- Positive Deviant Fast Company article, 11/30/00
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.