Redesigning Organisations For Positive Deviance

What if the traditional way that we think change happens is all wrong? What if our focus on the spread and scale of innovative business solutions isn’t the answer – but is part of the fundamental problem?

In 1990, an American couple named Jerry and Monique Sternin were sent by Save the Children to fight severe malnutrition in the rural communities of Vietnam.

Tired of ‘do gooder’ approaches that had cost lots and delivered little the Vietnamese Foreign Minister gave them just 6 months to make an impact.

When you’ve got weeks rather than years to solve a problem, and children are literally dying before you, you don’t have time for the theatre of change management. Equally you can’t lose yourself in the complex systemic causes of poverty.

Instead the Sternins decided to build upon what was already there –  rather than parachute in new solutions. So they travelled to various villages and sought out the real experts: the mothers.  They asked these mothers to help identify the villagers whose babies were bigger and healthier than the others.

In every community, organisation, or social group, there are certain individuals or groups whose behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to exactly the same resources.

Sternin later termed these people “positive deviants” – those who have – without realising it – discovered the path to success for the entire group.

  • Positive – in that they are doing something that achieves a fundamentally good outcome.
  • Deviant – in that their methods are not normal or universally understood or accepted.  They may even be frowned upon or distrusted.

In Vietnam the Sternins found that the mothers of the healthiest children were indeed doing things differently.

  • They were were feeding their children smaller portions of food rather than larger portions – but they were feeding them more frequently.
  • They were taking ‘low class’ food – like brine shrimp from the paddy fields – that was stigmatized by others and adding these to their daily soups or rice dishes.
  • They were ignoring the socially acceptable norm to feed family elders first – and serving their kids from the bottom of the pot, making sure the kids got the most nutritious food that had settled during cooking.

Alleviating the problem didn’t require huge resources or some transformation programme – it simply required connecting other community members with these ‘positive deviants’ and encouraging them to start emulating their behaviour.

Sternin went on to define Positive Deviance as a strength-based approach based around five core principles:

  1. Communities possess the solutions and expertise to best address their own problems
  2. These communities are self-organising with sufficient human resources and assets to derive solutions to communal problems
  3. Communities possess a ‘collective intelligence’, equally distributed through the community, which the approach seeks to foster and draw out
  4. The foundation of the approach rests on sustainability and the act of enabling a community to discover solutions to their own problems through the study of local “positive deviants”
  5. Behaviour change is best achieved through practice and the act of “doing”

The problem with much of our social innovation is that many solutions are programmes, projects or models run by well-meaning professionals, rather than building on what’s already strong.

In organisations , it’s even worse. We have standardised conformist models to ‘manage change’ top down, rather than identify positive deviance from the norm and nurture it.

Can Positive Deviance Work In A Corporate Environment?

Many of you will know the story of of the NASA ‘pirates’ but it’s worth reflecting on. This innovative team formed in the 1980’s and created an award-winning mission control system for the space shuttle program in record time, on a shoestring budget, and in the face of huge political resistance. Their values and methods challenged the established hierarchical culture.

The pirates were formed from a group of ‘troublemakers’, the kind of people who are most cynical about your latest change programme. Rather than booting these people out of NASA they created a safe environment that could amplify positive deviance rather than suppress it and offer the best chance for other renegade groups to appear and make a difference.

The seven pirate rules were:

  • Don’t wait to be told to do something; figure it out for yourself.
  • Challenge everything, and steel yourself for the inevitable cynicism, opposition, rumors, false reporting, innuendos, and slander.
  • Break the rules, not the law.
  • Take risks as a rule, not as the exception.
  • Cut out unnecessary timelines, schedules, processes, reviews, and bureaucracy.
  • Just get started; fix problems as you go along.
  • Build a product, not an organization; outsource as much as possible.

Realistically, you can’t run a whole organisation with rules like that. But you can create a safe environment in which those conditions can flourish. I’m presently doing some work on redesigning change at Bromford – and reading the story of Sternin and the Pirates again has made me challenge my instincts to try to make everything fit together nicely.

Not everything is meant to fit together nicely.

As Sternin later said – conventional change management just doesn’t work in practice. Rather than importing practices in from elsewhere you are often better at finding small, successful but “deviant” practices that are already working in the organisation and amplifying them.

If we want to be truly world changing rather than just sustaining the current system we need very different behaviours. That means leaning a little closer towards chaos, taking greater risks, and rewarding positive deviance.


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