Positive Deviance

February 6, 2008

Positive deviance is a concept that emerged in the field of development aid during the 1960s, and it found its initial expression among nutrition experts who wanted to find out why the children of some families were much healthier than others in a given village though they were subjected to the same poverty and the same harsh environment. Discovering what those families were doing to achieve better nutrition and health promised to be a pathway for finding sustainable solutions for malnutrition that were native to the context where they could be applied. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the concept was subjected to intensive field research.

A great deal of the work in positive deviance is still directed at nutrition programmes, but in recent years the principles of positive deviance have also been applied to initiatives in US hospitals to eradicate the “superbug” MRSA, prevention of human trafficking, and staff development inside organisations. In 2005 Merck used a positive deviance approach in its Mexico operations to improve the way it sold its drugs after noticing that some salesmen were much more successful than others in a very sluggish market.

The basic principles of positive deviance as it originally developed in the human development field are:

(1)It is a community-based approach to development.
(2)It is based on the premise that solutions to community problems already exist within the community.
(3)It is an approach to problem solving that looks at what is working instead of what is wrong.
(4)It focuses on existing resources that are available to everyone in the community, instead of focusing on needs requiring external aid. This ensures that the sustainability of the program continues because it depends on resources already found within the community.
(5)It mobilizes the community. The search for and discovery of positive deviance leads the community back to the source of its inherent wisdom and resources, and restores its power to solve problems.
(6)Positive deviance interventions and results are immediate; it does not take years of study and intervention to achieve solutions.
(7)Positive deviance is the practice of new behaviors.

If the message of my previous post was that capability-building is an urgent necessity for struggling organisations, but that it is inhibited by the magnitude of the need, by entrenched power structures and by a lack of ownership, then the message of this post is that positive deviance is an approach which promises to amplify capabilities, ownership and confidence.

Moreover, we already have techniques which have a strong affinity with a positive deviance approach – though Dave Snowden may shudder at their mention and ban me from ever gracing these pages again.

For example, identification and transfer of “best practices” fulfils a classic positive deviance goal, though they might be more appropriately be named “better” or “more successful” practices. Moreover, the adding of a positive deviance frame to “better practice” identification and transfer, gives a greater sensitivity to the context in which the practice is developed and in which it works, and it emphasizes the importance of local origination and ownership of the practice. Not all practices travel well from their native context, and it is this indiscriminate, context-insensitive lifting and re-application that has given best practices in KM their bad name, not to mention the lack of ownership of practice that it instills.

Appreciative Inquiry is an interview/dialogue technique which expresses perfectly the positive deviance principle stating that it’s better to look for what is working rather than what is going wrong. It goes a little further than that by also trying to define the aspirations of the actors in a given situation – ie what the desirable outcomes will be.

My gracious host Dave is particularly scathing about Appreciative Inquiry as a technique, because he sees it practiced in an (in my terms) apocalyptic/bi-polar vacuum, in a “happy-clappy” “fluffy-bunny” denial of the negative that would correspond to the manic phase of bi-polar disorder. There’s no engagement with the real problems of real life, and therefore it can be at best distracting and at worst delusional, magical thinking.

Again however, setting Appreciative Inquiry within a positive deviance frame gives it both credibility and utility. Positive deviance as an approach is always situated within a highly problematic situation. So the use of Appreciative Inquiry from within this acknowledged context is not a denial of the problematic, but an active search for the relief of the problem by finding the most useful and actionable possibilities within that situation.

A third and complementary technique that seems peculiarly suited to the positive deviance approach is the Most Significant Change technique. This is a story gathering discovery technique to collect examples of positive impact of initiatives, which are then selected for their importance by different panels of stakeholders, from the ground up. This technique arose in the late 1990s also in the human development context and more recently our friends at Anecdote in Australia have pioneered its adoption as an organisational change and impact evaluation technique.

The technique is often criticized because it can easily impose an unnaturally positive bias on impact evaluation, and the filtering of stories by the various selection panels also worries people who are concerned about full transparency and an objective appreciation of the impact of an initiative. In fact, the developers of the method often stress that positive bias needs to be avoided, and that the technique should be used alongside more quantitative evaluation methods.

But again, a positive deviance frame seems to create very interesting possibilities for MSC as a technique. Narratives about positive deviance selected for their importance by the community that is seeking to improve its own situation seems to be a very promising avenue to pursue.

If Famine and Death depend for their strength on despair and incapacitation, a positive deviance approach seems to promise a great deal for increasing capabilities and confidence while also addressing the power issues that we encountered through all of the apocalyptic scenarios we considered. We should not let naïve, mechanical and sometimes exploitative attempts to use “positive thinking” methods polarize us against the promise of a positive deviance approach. It is not magical, it is context sensitive, and it is highly pragmatic. We need to work harder at developing methods that are easy to internalize and apply within organisations to help them build and amplify their own capabilities for coherence and change.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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