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.

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.