Saturday, 22 March 2008

Being positively deviant is a way to spread good practice

I've found the term "positive deviance" triggers a diverse range of concepts, prejudices and assumptions from colleagues when I introduce it. Which is probably why most practitioners involved in it refer to the practice as "PD"; it arrives with less emotional baggage.

In essence PD is about individuals and communities discovering their own ways to solve their own problems, using their own resources. They are able to do this because there are individuals and groups within their community who have already found a way to resolve the problem, or least whose practices or behaviours are more effective than others in their community. It is these folk who have resolved the issues who are the positive deviants...

So far so good. We all recognise the PD's in our communities. The bit that fascinates me is what usually happens next.

The leaders in many communities and organisations then design a process to extract the knowledge from the PD and to "spread" it across the others, usually linking the activity to an externally driven needs related exercise. The literature of knowledge management and the science of innovation diffusion is littered with reviews on the consequence of what and does not then spread.

Instead, what the practice of PD offers is the process of helping and supporting communities to investigate what might work for them, in their own context, culturally and specifically. By embarking on their own learning adventure and sharing experiences with their local positive deviant, the community develops solutions that work for them. This process may feel like it takes longer than a more directly controlled "spread" approach, however, I suspect that is an allusion. If a randomised control trial was possible (of course it isn't) we may find that the PD version takes longer to start and has conversations that are more difficult to track (though much of the process can be documented, especially using multimedia techniques). PD may be more sustainable in the longer term due its specificity and the depth of relationships built.

So why don't organisations use PD as a technique to achieve their objectives?

Well, some clearly do and achieve great results in doing so. There are some examples, along with excellent resources on

There is a video posted of a positively deviant nurse (isn't that a wonderful phrase!) demonstrating techniques as part of reducing MRSA in hospitals. However, many organisations I feel are afraid to use the techniques because they fear a loss of control or that the method doesn't conform to their perceived management model of project planning.

That's a shame as this might very well be a technique that suits some communities as it is not only a process of change, it can also leave individuals and groups with a satisfying feeling of progress, support and enhanced self esteem.

Are you ready to be positively deviant?

(c) 2008, Sarah Fraser

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