Positive Deviance: A Bright Spot Intervention

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“At the core of a Positive Deviance intervention is the recognition that significant innovation cannot come through reliance on outside experts who, from their hierarchical command and control position, tell the insiders what to do.  Such a tactic in no way evokes the natural capabilities of the system in leveraging the already effective practices of positive deviants within the system.”  -Goldstein, Hazy, Lichtenstein Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership

While the term “familiarity breeds contempt” may be too strong an example for the purpose it is trying to provide here, in some ways it most fitting.  We have this tendency not to honor and value the thinking and work of those closest in proximity to us.  We are often unable or unwilling to see the expertise sitting amongst us.  We like to believe that the answers to the most difficult problems we are trying to solve, are always beyond us and our current circumstances.  We don’t like to believe that those among us are able to solve the issues that we ourselves seem to find unsolvable, at least in our current circumstances.  It is an issue that we see playing out all the time, all around us in our teams, organizations, systems, and work…

  • We have a problem in our organization, let’s hire an external expert.
  • We need to build more capacity and engage in professional learning, hire a consultant.
  • We’re having a conference, we need to find an outside keynote.

Which is not to say that we don’t need to be tapping into external networks for greater, more expansive learning and idea flows, but not at the cost of continually devaluing the ideas and expertise that surrounds us in our teams and organizations.  Especially when that outside expertise does not come equipped with the same understanding of the context and access to which these problems have arisen and continue to preside and plague us and our organizations.

Unfortunately, for this very reason, we continue to fail to spread and scale the insights and ideas that can actually lead to solving the most difficult, stubborn and often intractable problems that afflict our leadership and organizations.  By remaining aligned in our thinking to an attitude that “no one can be a prophet in their own land,” we constrain the capacity for our own people and organizations to solve our own problems, in ways that are already working.

And yet, it is that very thinking which keeps us from noticing the positive deviants or bright spots that exist, often unnoticed and unrecognized in our organizations.  Those individuals who have access to the same resources and supports as everyone else, but who are actually pushing the needle, moving those mountains, and getting positive results towards those very problems that the organization has found to be too difficult to solve.

While they may not be prophets per se, for they often don’t even recognize or even notice how their actions and behaviors are progressing them positively against the odds, they are our greatest resource for solving many of the adaptive challenges we are facing.  In recognizing these bright spots, and in taking the time to watch and learn from them with a much more empathetic lens to determine what they are doing differently, we gather better solutions to moving forward in a much more positive manner.  In fact, we not only increase our own learning and capacity, but create the opportunity to scale and spread those ideas and thinking across our organizations.  As Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin share in the Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, “Invisible in plain sight is the community’s latent potential to self-organize, tap its own wisdom, and address problems long regarded with fatalistic acceptance.”

For which Pascale and Sternin add, “Positive deviance is founded on the premise that at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problem that confounds others. This individual is an outlier in the statistical sense – an exception, someone whose outcome deviates in a positive way from the norm.  In most cases this person does not know he or she is doing anything unusual.  Yet once the unique solution is discovered and understood, it can be adopted by the wider community and transform many lives.”

Positive deviance is both an intentional and internal approach to solving our organizational problems, issues, and challenges, which inevitably pushes back against the idea that “no one is a prophet in their own land” and “familiarity breeds contempt.”   It works on the belief that there are bright spots within our organizations, positive deviants that are having real success towards those problems we’ve deemed intractable, even though they have the exact same access, training, and resources.  The same everything as everyone else in our organization, and yet, they are finding success and achieving positive outcomes.  Instead of moving towards an external source of expertise to solve these challenges, positive deviance intentionally turns towards engaging an internal problem-solving approach.

What Pascale and Sternin share in regards to positive deviance is that, “The basic premise is this: (1) Solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist, (2) they have been discovered by members of the community itself, and (3) these innovators (individual positive deviants) have succeeded even though they share the same constraints and barriers as others.”

Which makes the spread and scale of these ideas and thinking easier and quicker to assimilate within the organization, as long as we move past the no prophet and familiarity mindset and stance.  Seeing that these solutions are being provided by those within the organizational group and community working with the same resources as everyone else, provides the ability to moving past excuses, to the understanding that we can solve our own problems and challenges, and in fact, we already are.

This intervention of positive deviance pushes progress forward in two very meaningful ways, (1) by moving from a knowledge to a behavior focus.  It engages these bright spot ideas and solutions not by telling and providing the knowledge, but through doing and learning new behaviors and practices.  Positive deviance focuses on learning by doing to scale and spread those bright spot solutions, and (2) there is a shift from putting the focus on what’s wrong in the system that we need to fix, to one of what’s right and how to engage, scale, and spread those positive solutions across the entirety of the organization.

However, before an organization or system can fully tap into what these positive deviants or bright spots are doing different, we must first define and identify what are the common practices that already exist within the organization and system.  Without identifying the common practices and behaviors that already exist, it will be very difficult to truly determine what these positive deviants are doing differently and why it is leading to successful progress and outcomes.  The ability to determine what a positive deviant is doing differently that leads to better outcomes, then allows a leader, an organization, or a system to begin to engage and amplify those practices and behaviors across the ecosystem.  As Pascale and Sternin share in Positive Deviance, “Until we determine what everybody is doing today, we can’t spot the exceptional and successful strategies.”

In Fast Company’s 2000 article Positive Deviant by David Dorsey, Jerry Sternin shares that there are eight “steps toward adopting positive deviance as your change program”

  1. Don’t Presume That You Have The Answer – too often, believing we have the answer to the problem closes us off to a diversity of thinking and ideas, keeping us from truly seeing the how and why positive deviants are having success in solving the problem.
  2. Don’t Think Of It As A Dinner Party – As Sternin shares in the the article, “Everyone in the group that you want to help change must identify with the others in the group.  Everyone must face the same challenges and rely on the same set of resources to come up with answers.  If group members don’t see themselves as working on identical challenges with identical sets of resources, then positive deviance won’t work.”
  3. Let Them Do It Themselves – This is not a top down process, but rather one of discovery and testing out of these solutions within the group to see how those processes and behaviors work for them in their group.
  4. Identify Conventional Wisdom – As Sternin adds in the article, “Before you can recognize how the positive deviants stray from conventional wisdom, you first have to understand clearly what the accepted behavior is.  Establish what it is that most group members do.”  It is difficult to truly determine what is different, if you don’t have a baseline for what is the same.
  5. Identify And Analyze The Deviants – It is in defining the conventional wisdom of the group, that the positive deviants will emerge.  It is in defining the common that the uncommon begins to become more apparent.  It is in this process that the invisible become visible.
  6. Let The Deviants Adopt Deviations On Their Own – Sternin defines this step as critical, “Once you find deviant behaviors, don’t tell people about them.  It’s not a transfer of knowledge.  It’s not about importing best practices from somewhere else.  It’s about changing behavior.  You design an intervention that requires and enables people to access and to act on these new premises.  You enable people to practice a new behavior not to sit in class learning about it.”
  7. Track Results And Publicize Them – Provide a space for results to be shown, let people see how results are achieved, which will allow the group to become interested and curious about them and how doing things differently led to these results.  Then celebrate success.
  8. Repeat Steps One Through Seven – For which Sternin adds, “Make the whole process cyclical.  Once people discover effective ways to deviate from the norm, and once the methods have become common practice, it’s time to do another study to find out how the best performers in the group are operating now.  Chances are that they’ve discovered new deviations from the new norm.”

In simpler terms, Pascale and Sternin in their book, Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, share how the following 4 steps are important in moving towards the Positive Deviance process:

  1. Define the problem and desired outcome.
  2. Determine common practices.
  3. Discover uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies through inquiry and observation.
  4. Design an action learning initiative based on findings.

For which they also provide 4 characteristics of the Positive Deviance process:

  1. It is generative.
  2. It is based on strengths and assets.
  3. It is not expert driven. Community members provide culturally appropriate expertise.
  4. It is embedded in the social context of the community.

Ultimately, finding the positive deviants and bright spots in the system is both an unconventional and intentional act.  It requires moving past conventional wisdom of the day, past the external experts, and truly determining what is happening successfully (already) within the organization or system, why is it happening, how it is happening, and in what ways can we scale and spread it across our teams, our groups, the community, and eventually, the entire organizational ecosystem.

Or as Pascale and Sternin share, “Positive deviance?  An awkward, oxymoronic term.  The concept is simple: look for the outliers who succeed against all odds.”

 

 

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