Editor’s Note: This is the 3rd in a series of articles about The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. See also Kirsten Cronlund’s article,
A Powerful Collection: Book Review and Amanda Horne’s article, Virtuous Organizations
An Example of Positive DevianceTwelve years ago, Harvard Business Review published an article on the role the Save the Children organization played in reducing childhood malnutrition in rural villages in Vietnam. Behavior was changed by examining the positive deviants in the community: the families who did not have malnutrition because they were feeding their children differently, against conventional wisdom. By helping the rest of the villagers discover this behavior already occurring among their members, change was implemented from within.
“… the positive-deviance approach creates indigenous solutions…it offers important advantages over traditional approaches that try to impose solutions from outside.” Sternin & Choo
This inspiring story is one of many examples of Positive Deviance (PD) that occur in the health and nutrition sciences. In Chapter 77 of The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, Marc Lavine reviews the history of positive deviance and suggests that management and organizational scholars should “make greater use of PD as a learning method or applied technology.”
He notes that the 2003 book Positive Organizational Scholarship included an examination of positive deviance in organizations by Gretchen Spreitzer and Scott Sonenshein. They provided definitions, constructs, and future research agendas. Nine years later, little has happened to extend this work in business settings. Lavine finds that PD has flourished in social services settings, with the Positive Deviance Initiative providing the “most comprehensive treatment of an applied PD approach to date.”
What is Positive Deviance?
PD is both an act and an approach.
The origins of the positive deviance approach can be traced back to Marian Zeitland who is considered to be the originator of positive deviance in the early 1990s, and to Jerry and Monique Sternin who are widely regarded as pioneers in positive deviance.
“Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges. The Positive Deviance approach is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables the community to discover these successful behaviors and strategies and develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned.” ~The Positive Deviance Initiative website
Lavine notes that Spreitzer and Sonenshein defined positive deviance as “intentional behaviors that depart from the norms of a referent group in honorable ways.” Lavine updates the definition, “PD is uncommon behavior that does not conform to expected norms but would be deemed positive by a referent group.” This definition incorporates what Lavine considers the essential qualities of positive deviance.
Positive deviance focuses attention on the extreme end of the positive spectrum. The PD approach comprises:
- Identification of a problem / challenge
- Assumption that the solution exists in the community and that the insiders are the experts
- Inquiry-based discovery of positive deviants
- Observation of the behaviors of the positive deviants creating a sense of ownership in those seeking to change
- Social proof rather than hypothetical solutions
- Organic change from within
- Replication and adaptation, rather than creation of a model project
- Good leadership
- A gradual shift of the norm as the deviancy becomes the usual behavior
When I read about positive deviance, it sounded a lot like appreciative inquiry. I was pleased to read Lavine’s clear delineation of the differences between appreciative inquiry and PD. He considers them complementary approaches. Appreciative inquiry uses a discovery process to provoke new insights and to create generative change which would depart from what was originally identified in the discovery phase. Positive deviance on the other hand seeks to replicate the positive deviant behavior that it discovers. Appreciative inquiry usually builds on what is already working well within the system (i.e. within the company or group of people that want to improve it) whereas positive deviance is often used to contrast a system that works with one that doesn’t in order to improve the one that doesn’t. Positive deviance is generally used to address intractable problems, rather than to make incremental, generative improvements.
Future DirectionsThe PD approach is languishing in the organizational world. Lavine proposes several research questions that could stimulate a greater uptake of the PD approach. These include:
- What makes positive deviants deviate?
- When is deviance a group-level phenomena?
- What contributes to positive deviance in organizations?
- How does one skillfully facilitate a PD approach?
- Can PD be applied to complex tasks?
- What are the longer term effects on systems and organizations of a PD approach?
I would add my wish that the term “positive deviance” be reconsidered. I believe that a new term might improve the take-up of PD. Lavine noted that the word “deviance” is usually understood to be negative, and it brings to mind behaviors that are socially unacceptable. This is certainly a recurrent reaction amongst my peers and colleagues who do not warm to the term. They cannot imagine their teams enthusiastically seeking to make their projects into positive deviants.
Next month – a short article about Kim Cameron’s Positive Deviance Continuum.
Lavine, M. (2011). Positive Deviance. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.
The Positive Deviance Initiative, Tufts University.
Pascale, R., Sternin, J.,& Sternin, M. (2010). The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
For information about Jerry and Monique Sternin’s work in Vietnam with Save the Children see these three articles:
Positive Deviant, by David Dorsery, November 2000, Fast Company
Sternin, J. and Choo, R. 2000. The power of positive deviancy. Harvard Business Review, 78(1): 14–15.