Positive Deviance

November 1, 2008

I attended the Frye Institute’s Alumni leadership workshop prior to Educause ’08 last week. The best part of the session was the morning when a small group of about nine of us set off to explore open source, open content, and collaboration. The conversation quickly headed down the path of ways in which the trends toward Open technologies (and we can include web 2.0 here) and open content are enabling stronger and more meaningful collaborations.

During the course of the conversation, Gardner Campbell introduced the concept of Positive Deviance. I don’t even remember how it came up, but it hit me like a great new hot salsa. I wanted more. It seemed so pertinent to challenges we face as managers in fostering innovation and encouraging creativity. But instead of being some great new “System” (yes, with a capital “S”), it is something that emerges through individual characteristics.There are people who do amazing things without batting an eyelash. They do not fit the norm, they make great things happen. And, like that new hot salsa, we want more of them. We need them helping to lead the way.

So I have started to do a little research on the subject (that is research with a lower case “r”). It has a fascinating history in the health services in developing countries but can also be applied to organizations. The University of Michigan Ross Business School states,

“A growing number of scholars believe positive deviance may be important for promoting subjective well-being and long-term organizational effectiveness.”

In an article in Fast Company, Jerry Sternin, the fellow responsible for testing out this theory in Vietnam back in the 1990s, says,

“The traditional model for social and organizational change doesn’t work,” says Sternin, 62. “It never has. You can’t bring permanent solutions in from outside.” Maybe the problem is with the whole model for how change can actually happen. Maybe the problem is that you can’t import change from the outside in. Instead, you have to find small, successful but “deviant” practices that are already working in the organization and amplify them. Maybe, just maybe, the answer is already alive in the organization — and change comes when you find it.”

Wikipedia provides a more general view:

“Positive Deviance (PD) is an approach to personal, organizational and cultural change based on the idea that every community or group of people performing a similar function has certain individuals (the “Positive Deviants”) whose special attitudes, practices/ strategies/ behaviors enable them to function more effectively than others with the exact same resources and conditions.[1] Because Positive Deviants derive their extraordinary capabilities from the identical environmental conditions as those around them, but are not constrained by conventional wisdoms, Positive Deviants standards for attitudes, thinking and behavior are readily accepted as the foundation for profound organizational and cultural change.”

The Postive Deviant Network names Seven Characteristics of Positive Deviants:

  1. Passion
  2. High Moral or Social Purpose
  3. Seeing Holes vs. the Net
  4. Moving Towards, Not Away
  5. Rapid Cognition
  6. Checking the Edges
  7. Low Regard for Social Convention

“Don’t teach new knowledge — encourage new behavior.”

If you are interested in learning more about these 7 characteristics, visit their web page (doesn’t work well in Firefox unfortunately) which has more detail about each characteristic.

I have more to learn about this concept, but I fully expect to continue to find some wonderful insights and ideas as I reflect upon and apply some of the concepts within the work environment at UC Berkeley. Thanks, Gardner, for the tip. Nothing like a little collaboration to expand our world! And of course, thanks to the open WWW for enabling me to find all this great information and thanks to those positive deviants that started it…

4 Responses to “Positive Deviance”

  1. Jon Lloyd Says:

    Thanks for your excellent summary of positive deviance (PD.)

    PD works for seemingly intractable problems in healthcare and elsewhere. It has been applied to the epidemic of healthcare acquired MRSA infections in the US. Six hospitals supported by the Plexus Institute and the CDC and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have achieved statistically significant sustained reductions in these infections since PD’s initial success at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System in 2005. Details are available at: http://www.plexusinstitute.org and http://www.positivedeviance.org.

    Today over 60 healthcare organizations are applying PD to MRSA prevention in the US and Colombia. These hospitals are quickly realizing that PD only works in practice and that the unlikely suspects (houskeepers, pastoral care givers, patient transport and other support service techs) are coming up with the most effective and least resource-dependent solutions. Given the freedom and opportunity to tap into their experiential wisdom, hundreds of front line workers are coming up with thousands of penny solutions by acting their way to a new way of thinking.

    Yes, the very people who were transmitting MRSA by touching patients hundreds of times each day with their hands, clothing and equipment are now co-creating solutions that are achieving dramatic reductions in the infection rates in their hospitals. CEO’s are learning that the solutions to the problem already exist in their facility.

    As the economy decelerates, it will become increasingly important to accelerate the broader/deeper use of existing resources. PD is proving to be one very effective way of doing this.


    Jon C. Lloyd, MD
    Senior Clinical Advisor
    Plexus Institute

  2. Laurie Says:

    This was really interesting stuff, Mara. I will check out the site and get more information. Thanks!

  3. Laurie Says:

    This was really interesting stuff, Mara. I will check out the site and get more information. It’s something that makes sense to me!

  4. sarah Says:

    Another website of interest is http://www.positivedevianceinitiative.org from the Positive Deviance Initiative. You’ll find the history of PD from the people who first used it in an intervention, current projects, contacts for training, ect

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