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…

Studs Terkel, the great American Oral Historian, died yesterday. I was introduced to his work in high school when we read his book, Working, as part of a class. It made a huge impression on me. It was the first time I actually spent any time thinking about how people might feel about their work and began to recognize that passion, pride, and creativity can occur in any job and in any field. The SF Chronicle obituary mentions that Studs wanted this as his epitaph: “Curiosity did not kill this cat.” If have often thought that curiosity is one of the signs of a great leader. Curiosity and listening. Studs did both. While not a politician, Studs dedicated his life to service. His service was in providing a window into the perceptions, the joy, and the pain of people all across America, breeding respect for diversity and offering an opportunity for empathy.


April 28, 2008

I sat next to an elderly lady on BART. I was on my way to the Airport, and she was on her way to visit her cousin in Pacifica. We both had suitcases and she was concerned that she might not be on the right train.

I don’t normally talk to people on public transportation. It’s not because I am unfriendly, perhaps because I am shy, but probably it’s because I just don’t happen to be a very good conversationalist. However, I talked with this woman, and didn’t ask her name. She looked like a Marilyn, though, so I will just call her that.

Marilyn lives in Sacramento and took Amtrak down. I commented on my train ride last labor day up to Davis and bike ride from there to the Capay Valley. I asked, “Do you know the Capay Valley? Guinda?” Her eyes brightened with happiness and a shot of pride, “Oh yes, I used to live there!” Why does a world so large for a short moment get small enough so as to actually feel like home? We spent some time talking about the almond (a-mond) trees in bloom, the politics of and problems with new housing butting against old farms, farm land preservation, the traffic on 80 in Farfield… She then mentioned growing up in a small town outside of Vermont and helping her Vermont-based uncle and Aunt (around Bennington) with their maple syrup harvest in the winter. When I mentioned that my sister lived in Vermont, she was so pleased. As she talked her hands motioned this way and that, describing the flow of the sap as it went through the sugar shack to be reduced to syrup. Her nails, long and pink with flowers painted on the middle finger of each hand, did not belie the work of her youth. When I asked about whether she climbed through the mountains around her home when she was young (she is from North Adams), she said, “Well! I had hiking plenty just getting to school… I had a good childhood.” We connected in so many ways, across the years, across geography. Yet, I had to meet her on BART, the flat line to interesting places.

In early September I took three days of work to go backpacking in Yosemite with my friend Diane and partner, Tracy. One of those days, a Friday, I did all the food shopping and equipment gathering/packing. The next day we picked Diane up at 5 am and headed for Yosemite. By 10:30 am we had permit in hand and were at the trailhead. Four days, three nights, several mountain passes, and many switchbacks later (OK, for some of us a few blisters also!) I felt like I had been gone for ages. With our cell phones tucked neatly in our spare tire compartment, the high mountain air, marmots, waterfalls, gorgeous views, and hard work (~8-9 miles a day average) I experienced a renewal no Hawaiian beach vacation could ever serve up. Check out the pictures on my Flickr site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bigbluetractorgirl/sets/72157602142334944/

I have been thinking about the personal responsibility and identity issues that reveal themselves on the web and in virtual environments. I haven’t done any research on this issue, although I am sure there is plenty. Mainly, my opinions are stemming from my personal experience with contributing to a number of different social networking tools such as facebook, this blog, LinkedIn, as well as a large number of email lists and open source communities.

One of the elements we talk about a lot in education and online tools is how students who are shy, or simply not comfortable voicing opinions in-person, find it easier to express themselves on the web or in a mediated virtual environment. This doesn’t surprise me, as someone who is fairly shy myself. For this reason, the potential alienation derived from virtual communication has never really concerned me. I can carry on a virtual conversation and in-person conversation with the same agility. In fact, sometimes it is easier to engage initially virtually as a way to ease into a community. What doesn’t change for me is my essential persona. I am always Mara Hancock, and the words – whether typed or spoken – are my own.

Watching my son – who is not shy – “talk with my friends” via IM every night I have been equally unconcerned. What is strikingly different though, is that he is not talking to “Derek who lives two blocks away,” he is talking to “PidgeonToes” or “MrRogersRIP” or “DragonGirl.” Peering over his shoulder, I have to ask, “who are you talking to?” I can never remember which alias goes with which kid. My IM alias is incredibly boring, “mara_hancock,” betraying my age and essential unhip self.

Recently, I have received several cranky comments on my blog. I have it set so that I can review and moderate comments, which I usually do happily and quickly. I am more than willing to post comments that are controversial or promote dialog. I believe that is part of the responsibility that comes with choosing to publish in this medium. Most of my peers are professional in their manner and bring interesting ideas to share. However, these recent comments however are clearly people venting. They don’t compose their argument or message and tend toward the use of profanity. These things, while concerning, don’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that they do not sign their real names. I have no idea who I am talking to, I have little context with which to assess this person’s perspective or opinion.

Now, I grew up in a relatively liberal family with a strong work-ethic and sense of personal responsibility and values. I know that my opinions are sometimes controversial, but if I believe it important to express them in a public arena (and the web is public), then I also believe it is important enough to sign my name next to them. I think about this when I sign petitions, when I sign letters and emails, and when I write in this blog.

So, if you would like to have your comments included on this blog, please, let me know who you are. You know who I am. It’s like shaking hands.

After being in Amsterdam for several days, it dawned on me that I had not seen any Starbucks stores. None. What a great feeling, to not feel inundated, stalked, smothered by the brands from my own culture. I can actually experience the essence of Dutchness without having to filter out the dominating American value as embedded in a cup of coffee.

So, as I was running through Amsterdam’s Vondel park this morning I passed a Blue Heron. A beautiful, statuesque, heron that was not at all afraid of the slapping sound of my feet or the arrhythmic, somewhat wild, gesticulations of my arms and legs. My first thought, “Cool, a blue heron…” My next thought, “We have blue heron’s at home.” Ahhhh. The globalization effect of migrating birds. Nature’s brand effect. But where did the heron originate? Am I experiencing Dutchness at home in California, or am I now experiencing US domination in Vondel park? Of course, the heron isn’t trying to get my money. Thank god.


  • It makes you learn the lay of the land and gets you out of your hotel
  • It gets you out early, before the tourist onslaught
  • It takes you to places you might not normally go
  • It makes you feel like you live there

This morning I went running in Amsterdam’s Vondel Park. The birds were singing in the full green trees. I saw a rabbit eating breakfast on the grass, other runners passing by (“GoedeMorgen!”), several Europe-traveling backpackers sleeping on a bench in their sleeping bags, young couples straggling their way home after a night of carousing, and street cleaners cleaning up after them … I now know the feel of the bridges under my soles, the smell of the canals in the early morning, and the sound of the bakeries opening. My memory of Amsterdam will be rounded out with sensations not at all related to the implementation or development of Sakai, yet forever associated.

Blended Living

April 1, 2007

I have been working and struggling for years on work/life balance. Have you? Well, I writing to say that I am now officially “over that.” You may think I have gone off the deep end, but I have determined that not only is it impossible, perhaps it is even undesirable. I am now playing with becoming a born again advocate for what I call Blended Living! Those of you familiar with the educational concept of a “blended course,” which includes both online and time in the physical classroom will get my reference. My work and my personal life should be blended, not each living in their own little box. If my work isn’t interesting enough to occupy my creative brain, and improve me as a person why should I do it? If my personal life doesn’t keep me challenged and engaged in love and parenting, why should I have a family? Aren’t these things tied together in a way that should enhance and uplift both sides?

This blog entry has been sitting unfinished and unpublished for a long time now. I guess that fact reveals my vacillation on the subject despite my great pronouncement. I wonder whether my family would approve of my “insight.” One thing that made me come back to this subject was a Contra Costa Times article that came out about my mother, Loni Hancock (California Assemblywoman, District 14) and her husband, Tom Bates (Mayor of Berkeley, California) in which one of them states that their involvement in politics in an avocation not just a vocation. An avocation. Webster Online says that the meaning of avocation is a “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.” So if you are lucky enough to have your vocation be your avocation, working long hours isn’t a burden, thinking about solutions to challenges while riding your bike with your kids isn’t a terrible treason, and wanting to write that blog entry on blended living instead of folding the laundry just makes plain old sense. But what about the other way around? Wanting to escape the office on a sunny day and go to the beach with your family isn’t against the law, and wanting to not send that last email, but rather sit back and watch Jesus Camp documentary that your son has brought home isn’t being lackadaisical. Right? Yes… but….

I guess having a politician for a mother can take its toll and I definitely spent my time in my teenager years and young adulthood brooding over the lack of full attention I received from my mother. At some point, perhaps after having a child of my own, I gave up on those feelings and started to see what I actually got out of that situation. Besides getting to know my wonderful father, Joe Hancock, better than most kids, I also had an incredible role model of a woman who pursued her passion and helped improve the world. She has done this through a number of careers throughout her life — always different, and always similar — all about improving the world through social and environmental justice. The other day when in debate with some colleagues about the value of the UC Berkeley webcast and podcast program, webcast.berkeley.edu, and the issues that arise from creating and delivering this content to the public, I raised her political endeavors as an example of something that I wouldn’t take back even if it meant more time for my childhood me. I was surprised by this statement even as it was coming out of my mouth, but I meant it. It was my mother in her entirety that was truly valuable, not just her love for me and my family.

Honestly, I didn’t mean for this to become an “all about my mother” blog entry. But the avocation concept has really stuck with me. The other day, in discussing with my son, Tynan, some “issues” with his focus on his studies he mentioned my work travel in a negative light. I responded with that my work was my study. That felt right. And, on the other hand, I can’t tell you how many of my colleagues know about Tynan, about his ups and downs at school, about the funny things he says sometimes, about his passionate nature. I can only hope that someday he will be standing where I stand now, in the middle of a seamless sea of friends, colleagues, interesting opportunities, and challenging ideas.

Sing it to the tune of Wild Thing!

I may be behind the times (as evidenced by my taste in music!) in discovering this sweet new tool, but the LibraryThing web app is new to me and, WOW, I like it. LibraryThing is a site that helps you catalog your books (your library) either by capturing the metadata through a simple search on Amazon or the Library of Congress or through an actual bar code scanner (you can purchase it on the site) which you can use on your physical library. You can then rate these books, comment on them, talk about them with all the other folks who have added them to their library, or simply share your list with friends. You can see the start of my library (done in all of about 2 minutes) here.

SO, why do I like it so much? Probably for the same reason I like Flickr. I like to share the things I like and I am lazy. I guess I don’t really care if “all those people out there” that I don’t know find or like my reading materials, but I certainly like being able to point friends and colleagues to my pictures or favorite books without having to attach them to an email. Now, if only my friends and family had a list like this (ohhhh, yeeessss) I would never have to face going to bed bookless again. I can’t wait to get home tonight and start adding to my library for your browsing pleasure.

Curriculum Night

October 23, 2006

On Wednesday I attended the curriculum night at my son’s new high school. He is a sophomore this year and we moved him from the local public school, Berkeley High, to a very small private high school, Maybeck (named after the architect, Bernard Maybeck). The story is long, but it should suffice to say that both Tynan and his parents were falling through the cracks in Berkley’s large urban public high school.

As I progressed through curriculum night, strolling through Tynan’s schedule, I was very pleased to find myself hankering to attend high school again (youth really is wasted on the young!). When you enter a school where the teachers all like to have fun, are passionate about teaching, and are excited about learning — well, it is hard not to fall into step.

One of the most interesting aspects of the evening was meeting his biology and Math teachers. His biology teacher, a recent graduate from UC Berkeley (Ph.D in Endocrinology), mentioned that he had set up a yahoo groups for the kids which among problem sets for the AP test was linking out to the webcast biology lectures at UC Berkeley — a program which ETS oversees! ETS and our professors gets many emails from people all over the world who watch and learn from these open lectures, but to now have my son learning from them really personalizes the value. Wow. What a nice circle.

His math teacher, a young woman with a Ph.D from Harvard (biochemistry?), also has a yahoo group and is using it to post solutions to the math homework. These two young teachers were so enthusiastic, and so full of ideas it was inspiring. Melody, the math teacher, talked about her decision to teach high school and how she was driven to make math more meaningful for kids in a way that no one ever did for her. She wants to teach the kids that learning is about exploration and teach them the skills to help them how to teach themselves.

She may not realize how on track she is. In several recent focus groups with UC Berkeley undergrads (not a scientific study), we found that many of the Cal students interviewed felt they were missing this type of guidance from their teachers. Those who are lucky enough to enter college with this skill find it much easier to succeed.

Another interesting thing to me is that they are using Yahoo Groups to support their small courses — between 5 and 12 students — and find value in extending the dialogue from the intimate class setting into the virtual environment. Educational Technology Services also develops and supports a collaboration and learning environment (CLE), we call it bSpace. Many of the classes that use it are large lecture courses (think 250 or 500 students). I realize that I may have fallen into a limiting assumption that using a CLE is most often a way to make up for the deficiencies inherent in large lecture courses — the lack of community and ability to easily collaborate. While I think the CLE value to large lecture courses remains high (when utilized correctly), I submit that as we see in Tynan’s courses, community can be strengthened using online collaborative tools even in a small class environment. I’ll write more about this more in a future entry.

Clearly, I am happy that my son is in such a dynamic environment with such wonderful teachers. I am also glad to know that as he makes the transition to college life (and now I am more confident that this transition will really happen!), he will expect to be engaged both in the classroom and through technology. This means those of us out here in higher-education-land had better keep on learning, listening, and observing so as to be prepared. Right now I am lucky to have my live-in subject and fish-bowl life.