Positive deviance – are you getting the real thing?

I’ve noticed recently that the term “positive deviance” is becoming more widely used.  It’s catchy, slightly edgy and we’ve found people like to be one!  However, we use it to describe the strengths-based community coaching methodology developed and supported by the Positive Deviance Initiative in Boston, which has delivered amazing behaviour changes in areas such as MRSA reduction, community health and organisational performance.

We’ve noticed that a number of writers and consultants are using it differently.  Some use the term to identify those people performing at the top of the scale in business.  These people are outliers, mavericks, with special qualities. These people are highly visible, and “out there”.

This isn’t what we mean….  We are looking for everyday people who just happen to do something different to their colleagues.  It could be something very small but it makes a huge difference – the teacher who greets each pupil as they arrive has a much lower exclusion rate, for example.  You don’t have to be a maverick or have special qualities to be able to do the same thing.  The Development Director of the Danish Prison Service, who like me learned about PD on the Said Business School master’s programme, Consulting and Coaching for Change (CCC), successfully used PD to find small behaviours to reduce stress and violence in a high security prison.  Their team discovered small things, such as not reading inmates’ case files, changed the relationships between officers and offenders, reducing the need for restraint and lowering officer stress and absence.

In her book, “the Positive Deviant – sustainability leadership in a perverse world” (Earthscan, 2011) , Sara Parkin uses the term to describe inspiring examples of individual leaders who do “the right thing for sustainability despite being surrounded by the wrong institutional structures, the wrong processes and stubbornly unco-operative people”.   This book outlines a diagnostic and treatment process for leaders to make their organisations sustainable.  Amplifying positive deviance, the process we use, actually starts from finding what works, engaging teams and communities just to discover and share the small practices which can lead to quick wins – for example some social workers found ways of saving significant amounts of time by copying some work-arounds for their admin system and changing their phone answering practices.  (see our Hertfordshire Case study).

So if people are talking about positive deviance, it helps to be sure which kind you are talking about.  You don’t have to be a genius to get the best from positive deviance and something you do will be positively deviant, somehow.

One thought on “Positive deviance – are you getting the real thing?

  1. Thank you Jane for this clarification…and highlighting the difference between Sara Parkin's book and concept of Positive deviant leaders and the PD leaders in the PD approach which has been used over 2 decades with great success.
    As described in numerous articles, especially the Harvard Business Review article of May 2005 :"your company's secret Change agents" by Richard pacale and Jerry Sternin; the leaders involved in the PD process act differently: they delegate and even more importantly trust that the front line workers will have the answers and see their role as removing barriers and being enablers of the innovation coming from the community..
    I hope this is useful. Monique

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