We usually associate the word deviance with something bad. Our first reaction to the word is typically negative. Positive deviance, however, is a powerful idea that many of us have never heard of or fully tapped into.
So what is it?
According to the Positive Deviance Initiative, positive deviance is a problem-solving approach “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, in spite of the fact that they have access to the same resources and face similar or worse challenges.”
The concept first appeared in nutrition research in the 1990s. Researchers observed that, despite the poverty in a community, some poor families had well-nourished children. However, I first learned about the idea in the excellent book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. This book is chock-full of great examples of how massive change starts with a single positive deviant.
Here’s what it can mean for you.
You have access to a community and network, as well as vast social and professional circles. If you want to solve a problem, more often than not our community has the answer. This well-known Harvard Business Review book outlines five core principles around which positive deviation is built:
- Communities possess the solutions and expertise to best address their own problems.
- Communities have self-organizing entities with sufficient human resources and assets to derive solutions.
- The community possesses a collective intelligence that is equally distributed throughout the community.
- A community can use the approach of positive deviation to discover solutions to their own problems through the study of local positive deviants.
- Real behavioral change is best achieved through the practice and the act of doing.
A positive deviant is not the same as the outlier described by Malcolm Gladwell. The difference is that positive deviation can be replicated and scaled. If you understand the deviation from the norm, how it was achieved, the circumstances and the conditions that were present, you can apply the positive outcome to yourself and across a broader population.
What inspired me about the concept of positive deviation was how it was applied to the problem of eradicating Guinea worm disease (GWD), a truly horrible parasitic disease with an estimated 3.5 million cases reported in 1986 (in 2015, only 22 cases were reported). The process that resulted in this dramatic change was observed and studied in one tribe and then scaled to the 22 endemic countries in Asia and Africa. Today, the disease has been reduced by 99.9%, all from the one person within that community who began the process that led to eradicating this scourge. One person.
Who is the one person in your community that is doing remarkable things? What behaviors are making a difference in your organization? Study them, learn from them, adopt what’s working and scale it. I hope you’ll dig in and learn more about positive deviation and what a game-changing idea it can be to influence the change and progress that you, your organization and your industry needs.
The idea and answer you’re looking for may be right under your nose.