In Praise of Positive Deviance

A positive deviant can solve a problem despite the same odds that are stacked against everyone


Image by Flickr user: phillllip / Creative Commons

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What’s the key to transforming a community that’s merely surviving into one that’s thriving? Perhaps just a single person.

The September 2010 issue of Ode features an excerpt from the book The Power of Positive Deviance by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin. According to the authors, the theory of positive deviance holds that in every setting there’s at least one person who strays from the norm—a positive deviant—someone who has found a way to buck the status quo and solve a problem despite the same odds that are stacked against everyone.

Such people have discovered crops able to survive the torrential conditions of floodplains and have transformed desert dunes into groves of saplings. These deviants don’t have any special advantage—they just think outside the box. Positive deviance, the authors explain, “requires retraining ourselves to pay attention differently—awakening minds accustomed to overlooking outliers, and cultivating skepticism about the inevitable ‘that’s just the way it is.’ ”

But identifying these statistical outliers isn’t enough. The community needs to have a way to share the information, or the progress is simply isolated. The authors caution that “in the absence of a social process to disseminate innovation and incorporate it into the group repertoire, discovery bears few progeny.”

Positive deviance is most effective when a technical solution, such as a vaccine, doesn’t exist, and where a problem is deeply rooted in the social fabric and mind-set of the culture. The concept has helped reduce gang violence in schools, corruption in Kenya, and minority dropout rates in California, proving that communities that are willing to embrace deviants can experience positive change.

jan-feb-2011-cover-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.