Book Review: The Power of Positive Deviance

Posted by Kevin Bishop - July 29, 2010
Filed in Book reviews, Changing behaviour, Employee engagement

I have just finished The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin) a book I have been waiting for some time to come out. I am very glad to say the wait has been well worth it.
Positive deviance has received a lot of attention since the concept was laid out in a series of articles way back in 2000 – one in the Harvard Business Review and the other in Fast Company. The concept has recently received a new boost since it was covered in both Influencer: the Power to Change Anything and by Chip and Dan Heath (where they called them ‘bright spots’) in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.


Positive deviance is based on the observation that in every community or organisation, there are certain individuals or groups (the ‘positive deviants’ or ‘bright spots’), whose uncommon but successful behaviours enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers. Positive deviance identifies these individuals or groups, who have access to exactly the same resources and face the same challenges and obstacles as their peers, and examines their behaviours and attitudes, which help them avoid problems that plague the rest of their community.
The concept of positive deviance is therefore relatively simple. It involves the identification of people who manage to thrive in a situation where most fail; figuring out what those people are doing that is different from the majority; and then getting everyone to engage in the same actions, thereby solving the problem. Sounds simple enough right? The book shows the challenges encountered in trying to use positive deviance to make a difference to a wide range of seemingly intractable problems.
The book is based around six in-depth case studies (a chapter each) on the use of positive deviance to address childhood malnutrition in Vietnam, stopping female circumcision in Egypt, reducing hospital infection rates in the US, reducing infant mortality in Pakistan, boosting sales within the pharmaceutical firm Merck, and helping reintegrate girl soldiers in Uganda.
Each of these chapters is an in-depth analysis of the power and limitations of positive deviance and how they have learnt and adapted the approach as they have gone along. These case studies really bring to life the context, situation and challenges they faced in each scenario. They are detailed, have a lot of information in them, and I’ve gone back and re-read most of them a number of times, and each time something new has jumped off the page for me.
Some of the key lessons I’ve taken, or had reinforced, from these case studies include:
1. We focus too much on the ‘what’, and not enough on the ‘how’.
We are drawn to the ‘technical’ stuff – the ‘what’, the specific practices and tools that make the individual positive deviants successful;

“That’s the easy part – and only 20 percent of the work. What matters far more is the ‘how’ – the very particular journey that each community must engage in to mobilize itself, …discover its latent wisdom, and put this wisdom into practice.” This point really made me think about the number of articles I have articles about positive deviance, and how the vast majority of them focused on the ‘what’ the solution – not on the ‘how’ the solution was found and integrated into a community – from my experience the hard stuff.

2. The danger we bring as ‘experts’ in the change process:
As the authors say: “The greatest barrier to the success of positive deviance approach comes not from the members of the community themselves but from the “experts” who seek to help them…” There is fantastic story of how a suggestion around the use of tongs for Fried Chicken fundamentally changed an expert’s view on how to deal with, and beat, MRSA
3. Creating compelling and concrete portrayals of the problem at hand.
I absolutely love the story of using chocolate pudding to bring to life MRSA and its impacts in the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh
4. Change starts with changing practices
The conventional wisdom is that knowledge changes attitudes and attitudes change practice. Positive deviance reverses that. It starts with changing practice. As people see that changes make a difference, their attitude changes and they internalise the knowledge.
As the authors say; “its easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting… Once positive deviance behaviours have been discovered, the design must provide those who seek to learn with both the opportunity and the means to practice the new behaviour. A focus on practice rather than knowledge has proven to be a key element in bringing about lasting behavioural change…”
5. Use Deliberate Practice to practice the new behaviour
There is a lovely sidebar headed ‘choreographed conversations’ about training positive deviance participants in Egypt to start conversations around female circumcision. It is a great example of some of the key elements of deliberate practice.
6. Positive deviance is not the same as ‘Best Practice’
What comes out of the positive deviance process should not be confused with ‘best practices’ that we all are familiar with in our organisations. ‘Best Practices’ are typically identified by those at the top and then presented to everyone else for adoption. Positive deviance, on the other hand, is based on discovery by the practitioners themselves, which promotes buy in, acceptance, and change.
The book finishes with some absolute nuggets in how to undertake positive deviance work in a section called the ‘Basic Field Guide to Positive Deviance’. It provides a step by step guide (as much as you can within a process as fluid as that of positive deviance) on the key activities within a positive deviance initiative, as well as some really practical tips they have picked up during all of their work. My favourite one is; “Let silence speak! (Pause for twenty seconds after asking a question. That’s long enough to sing happy birthday!). Try it, you’ll be amazed how long twenty seconds actually is!
Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed The Power of Positive Deviance (http://tinyurl.com/2vykgaz). It is detailed, it’s in-depth, and provides a huge amount of information about positive deviance and the challenges to apply it to solve real world problems. It did take some effort in parts to relate the chapters back to my world. Not always easy to link stopping female circumcision in Egypt with and the challenges that I face in creating change within organizations, but the links and the lessons are there.
Lastly, a word of advice. If you want to easily understand the concepts and principles of positive deviance and get excited about it and how it has been used – start with Influencer (http://tinyurl.com/yuvg54) and Switch (http://tinyurl.com/37bnsoz). If you need to get senior stakeholders and sponsors excited about the concept, do the same. If you then want to try and use positive deviance in making a difference to the challenges you face, read The Power of Positive Deviance (http://tinyurl.com/2vykgaz).
About the authors:
Richard Pascale is an academic at Oxford University, and author of numerous books including Surfing the Edge of Chaos (http://tinyurl.com/334ceb3). Jerry Sternin was the world’s leading expert in the application of positive deviance before his death in December, 2008. Monique Sternin has been an equal partner in these efforts and now heads the Positive Deviance Institute (http://tinyurl.com/kmqjb9) at Tufts University.

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