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The Power of Positive Deviance

Posted by: Helen Walters on December 17, 2009

The concept of positive deviance is credited to Tufts University professor Marian Zeitlin, who documented the existence of “positive deviant” children in poor communities in the 1990s. These were kids who were better nourished than others even though they lived, played (and ate) in the same environment as everyone else. So it’s not a new idea, but it’s certainly intriguing, also made popular by Jerry Sternin, who applied the concept to great effect in Vietnam. (See also this review of SuperCorp, by Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, which makes the case for positive deviant companies.)

I recently wrote about my experience at the Aspen Design Summit, where a group of 10 other brave souls and I were tasked with solving the problems of rural healthcare in America. At the beginning of the session, Doblin’s Henry King brought up the idea of positive deviance, urging us to attempt a similar focus in our work for the community in Austin, Minnesota.

There was a smart subtext here, too. It seems to me that when confronting a huge, scary problem (like, say, “rural healthcare”) innovators and designers regularly attempt to do too much. In trying to solve everything for everyone all at the same time, the only possible outcome is a solution that half suits, at best. Focusing on a positive deviant, however, means emulating and building upon a proven success.

What do you think? Is this a strategy you employ? Does positive deviance strike you as a boon to innovation and smart design? Got any examples of the idea in action? I’d love to hear.

Reader Comments

David Herridge

December 21, 2009 10:55 AM

This reminds me a bit of the dual-ladder at 3M (at least the 3M during the 1990's when I was there). Advancement up the "management" side of the promotion ladder was governed by achieving norms (good fiscal oversight, good hiring, good motivation...). On the other hand, if you studied the advancement up the technical ladder to the level of Corporate Scientists, you would find a great sample of positive deviants. These were individuals with exceptional talents for creativity and invention even though they lived and played in the same environment as everyone else. The "tenure" of a proven, yet sometimes quirky, Corporate Scientist was a powerful lever in new ventures.

Craig Lefebvre

December 21, 2009 4:57 PM

In the world of social marketing (that is, applying marketing principles to address public health and social issues), the idea of positive deviance has been bouncing around since the 1990s (at least). Two areas in particular that I have direct experience with are in the national 5 A day for Better Health campaign where we conducted fishbowl focus groups with people who already ate at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and had these groups observed by our target audience (currently eating about 3 servings a day). The insights from the target audiences reactions to what they saw and heard were invaluable in helping us design behaviors and setting a tone (or brand personality) for our initial efforts with the national media campaign. The key point was that no one among our target identified AT ALL with the positive deviants - though the aspirational element was clearly there. Bridging the gaps became a key strategic issue for us.
The second area is in focusing on how to reduce high risk behaviors among teens (smoking, illegal drug and alcohol use, risky sexual behaviors, risky driving). Again, focusing on how the positive deviants cope with everyday pressures provide program planners with some insights into how to go about designing programs that are more relevant to teen concerns and avoid the 'adult' perspectives that too often creep into these efforts.

Peter Hook

January 3, 2010 4:18 PM

We use a mix of the Positive Deviance model and ideas from Solution Focused approaches as an approach to school improvement in the UK. Not only is it a strategy that works in helping schools move from "good" to "outstanding" it is equally applicable with schools that are seen as "failing". The added advantage in using it with the latter category is that it enables us to bring about lasting, sustainable change without incurring the sort of collateral damage (staff turnover, leadership change, etc) that other approaches seem to require. We've also used the approach to help workers achieve significant and lasting change with high risk groups such as young offenders, teenage drug users, etc. We are now applying the PD approach to help small and medium sized businesses to achieve rapid growth - early signs are that it is equally powerful in this area.

Paul Hudnut

January 9, 2010 10:28 PM

I think the new book "Switch" (Feb 2010) by Chip and Dan Heath (of Made to Stick fame) will provide some examples of "positive deviance". I spoke with Chip a while ago, and he was very excited about their work on this concept, and I assume it will be part of this book. You might get in touch with them and ask... they are about to start promoting the book, afterall.

Chaplain Winston

April 1, 2010 10:59 AM

1. What do you think?
I think feeding people is an excellent idea.

2. Is this a strategy you employ?

3. Does positive deviance strike you as a boon to innovation and smart design?

Well, actually no as it has been applied to the public school system. The lunch programs designed to enhance the learning process so children could be better educated because of a lack of proper nourishment has resulted in the children becoming obese, or fat. Obesity has now become a major factor contributing to a host of health care concerns including the disease diabetes. But Yes on the other hand if parents were to be given the food they would be able to control the amount of sugar content of the meals prepared and make sure the children receive a balanced diet according to their cultural norms.

4. Got any examples of the idea in action?

Well yes, I fill my freezer and my honey empties it saying she has a big appetite. I don’t mind for I am a Cheapologist and can’t refuse a deal and love to grocery shop a lot.


April 18, 2010 10:13 AM

I think you should go forth with the positive-deviance strategy. Looking at the better nourished health care systems is absolutely critical to gaging in why some are successful and why others aren't as successful. Having a competant management team would of course be necessary to running a successful. Close monitoring of the health care system would be necessary to understanding the varying success factors, perhaps due to varying cultural demographics, education levels, unemployment, etc. Good luck!

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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