!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Positive Deviance in Business Firms

Monday, December 22, 2008

Positive Deviance in Business Firms

Positive deviance, discussed in a couple of recent posts, is the brainchild of the husband and wife team, Jerry and Monique Sternin.

In May 2005 Jerry Sternin (who, sadly, passed away on December 11) published an article (pdf) in the Harvard Business Review co-authored with Richard Pascale1 that describes how the principles of positive deviance apply in the business world.

The basic idea is the same as in the context of development economics: When seeking a solution to a problem look for "positive deviants" — people who seem already to have solved the problem despite having access to no more resources than others in the community.

An exhibit in the article summarizes the differences between the traditional approach to change and the positive deviance approach. These differences (here, somewhat edited) are:

Leader as path breaker vs. Leader as facilitator
  • In the traditional approach, the leader has primary ownership, and the momentum for change comes from above.

  • In the positive deviance approach, the leader guides the positive deviance process, while the community takes ownership of the quest for change.
Outside in vs. Inside out
  • In the traditional approach, experts identify and disseminate best practices.

  • In the positive deviance approach, the community identifies pre-existing solutions and amplifies them.
Deficiency-based vs. Asset-based
  • In the traditional approach, leaders deconstruct common problems and recommend best practice solutions, with the implicit reproach that the company's or unit's employees aren't as good as their peers.

  • In the positive deviance approach, the community leverages pre-existing solutions practiced by those who succeed against the odds.
Logic-driven vs. Learning-driven
  • In the traditional approach, particpants think themselves into a new way of acting.

  • In the positive deviance approach, participants act themselves into a new way of thinking.
Vulnerable to "transplant rejection" vs. Open to self-replication
  • In the traditional approach, resistance arises to ideas imported from, or imposed by, outsiders.

  • In the positive deviance approach, latent wisdom is tapped within the community, which helps forestall rejection. "The trick is to introduce already existing ideas into the mainstream without excessive use of authority."
Moving from problem-solving toward solution identification vs. Moving from solution identification toward problem-solving
  • In the traditional approach, best practices are applied to problems defined within the bounds of existing parameters.

  • In the positive deviance approach, the solution space is expanded through the discovery of new parameters.
Focus on the protagonists vs. Focus on enlarging the network
  • The traditional approach engages stakeholders who would conventionally be associated with the problem.

  • The positive deviance approach identifies stakeholders beyond those directly involved with the problem.
As a final note, I'd mention the emphasis the positive deviance process places on reframing. Pascale and Sternin outline three steps to reframing a problem:
  1. Identify the conventional presentation of the problem. (E.g., "We don't have enough proper food for our children.")

  2. Find out if there are exceptions to the norm, people in identical circumstances who seem to be coping especially well. (E.g., Yes, Mrs. X and Mrs. Y have healthy, well-fed children.")

  3. Reframe the problem to focus on the exceptions. (E.g., "What are Mrs. X and Mrs. Y doing that's different?")
Reading the whole article will provide you with a range of helpful examples of reframing and of other aspects of the positive deviance process.

1 Richard Pascale is currently an associate fellow of Oxford University. Previously, he served for twenty years on the faculty of Stanford University's business school.


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