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Who Are Your Positive Deviants?
December 17, 2010
Written By: Michelle Clark, Ph.D.

Managing change is one of the top challenges in any organization. Many people within organizations feel great skepticism regarding change as a result of having experienced change initiatives that encountered organizational inertia, resistance, or unwillingness to address true barriers. When this happens, we often proclaim:

  • It has always been this way.
  • The problem is out of our control.
  •  Unless the _________________(e.g. government, CEO, corporate office) does ________________ (e.g. increases funding), this problem cannot be fixed.
  • This problem is too big, too complex, too entrenched to tackle.

The concept of positive deviance is a change management strategy that does not involve significant hoopla, implementation of the “management theory of the month,” or significant outside expertise.  The idea behind positive deviance is to turn members of your own organization into scientists who identify solutions that already are present and amplify them.

Think of a dilemma within your organization, one that is longstanding and seemingly intractable. Ask yourself: “Are there any places within your organization that suffer under the same constraints and yet are successful?” 

An example of the positive deviance strategy is Save the Children’s attempts to address malnutrition in a poverty-stricken third world country. Save the Children had experts on a variety of topics related to malnutrition (nutrition, farming, sociology, physiological development), yet the expertise did not provide a workable solution to the problem. All members of the community were affected by:

  • Inadequate food
  • Inadequate sanitation
  •  Political turmoil
  • Lack of medical care

Save the Children asked the question, “In this community where starvation and child mortality are rampant, are there any exceptions? Are there any children or families who are plagued by the same conditions and yet the children thrive?”

Interviews were held within the community with mothers and this question was explored. “Are there any exceptions, are there any children or families that do not suffer the same ravages of malnutrition and high mortality?” Exceptions were identified, and this group of women were asked to investigate what made the difference.  They found these differences in families where children thrived:

  • Children were fed multiple small meals throughout the day instead of 2-3 larger meals.
  • Additional protein was accessed through foraging and was added to the child’s diet.
  • Children were fed normally even when they were ill with diarrhea, when the standard practice was to limit food when children were ill.
  • Parents bypassed the tribal hierarchy and sought medical attention based on their own judgment.

With the support of the community members who had identified these differences, these success strategies were implemented, and the malnutrition and mortality rate declined significantly. Because the “solution” was untapped wisdom that was already contained within the community, and the implementation was shared peer to peer, it bypassed the typical resistance to expert authorities imposing external solutions.

According to Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin in the Harvard Business Review, this “positive deviance” approach has been used successfully by companies such as Hewlet Packard and Goldman Sacs to indentify internal solutions to intractable problems. In their HBR article, Pascale and Sternin identify a six step process:

Step 1: Make the group the guru

Step 2: Reframe through facts

Step 3: Make it safe to learn

Step 4: Make the problem concrete

Step 5: Leverage social proof

Step 6: Confound the immune defense response

If your organization is experiencing an organization sticking point, one that is crucial to its success, and one that requires changes in behaviors and attitudes, you might ask yourself and your organization: “Are there any places within your organization that suffer under the same constraints and yet are successful?”

If you have some unrecognized, positive deviants, learn from them!



Reference: Richard Tanner Pascale and Jerry Sternin. "Your Company’s Secret Change Agents." Harvard Business Review. May 2005



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