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The Power of Positive Deviance


The concept of positive deviance is credited to Tufts University professor Marian Zeitlin, who documented the existence of ??ositive 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.


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