Positive Deviance

What is positive deviance?

Positive deviance is an innovative approach to problem solving. It suggests when we need to solve problems in our communities and organisations, we should look to individuals or groups who are ‘positive deviants’ for solutions.

Positive deviants face the same (or perhaps worse) challenges/problems as the rest of their community/organisation and have access to the same resources – however they find innovative ways to view and tackle problems, finding solutions where others struggle. Their behaviour is therefore core to inspiring and leading sustainable change.

Some key principles of positive deviance:

  • Approach problems with curiosity and an open mind
  • Take an asset-based approach – look for existing resources within a community/organisation  
  • Use existing and create new social networks
  • Innovative behaviour should shape thinking
  • Solutions for behavioural and social change need to be led by communities
  • There are positive deviants in every community/organisation

Within the positive deviance approach, communities/organisations are involved in every step of the process – from initial discussions right through to implementation and monitoring of initiatives. This is core to the success of the positive deviance approach as communities must take ownership and identify solutions already in existence amongst their peers to be able to create sustainable behavioural and social change. Rather than being offered solutions from external ‘experts’, positive deviance relies on and champions the knowledge and networks already present within a community/organisation. Skilled positive deviance practitioners become facilitators and collaborators in the process, not the subject specialist.

There are many examples of successful positive deviance in practice around the world, combatting a huge variety of issues e.g. malnutrition, disease, health care provision, family planning, female entrepreneurs, access to education, student retention… some of these projects can be explored using the ‘Further reading’ links below. The success of these projects was due to community-based solutions. A problem was identified, the behaviour and strategies of positive deviants who were surviving (or even thriving) against all odds were highlighted and change initiatives were instigated to encourage others to adopt these behaviours. Community strengths were utilised, and solutions were community led and culturally appropriate.

Positive deviance has also been used within the corporate environment, challenging the ‘top down’ approach of knowledge transfer and encouraging more collaborative problem solving and connection within organisations. For a positive deviance approach to succeed, companies must be open to active listening and giving up a degree of the traditional control/authority that is typically present in hierarchical organisations. This may not be easy in environments which are individualistic, competitive and reward driven – sharing successful strategies and behaviours with colleagues, teams and departments may not come naturally!

In summary, positive deviance is an innovative approach to problem solving. It looks for existing strengths and strategies within a community or organisation that groups/individuals are using to find solutions. These behaviours deviate from the prevailing norms within the community/organisation and have positive outcomes.  They can be learned by others and create the basis for collaborative and sustainable behavioural and social change.

Further reading

Pascale, R. T., Sternin, J., & Sternin, M. (2010). The power of positive deviance: How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems. Harvard Business Press.

Positive Deviance Collaborative

Positive Deviance Wisdom Series

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