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Lessons from Positive Deviance

Published on 02 October 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

In 175 I’ve described Positive Deviance (PD) and given some examples from the field. I hope they were intriguing enough to get you to reflect on this “new” approach. Now I’d like to muse on its underlying assumptions and try to guess where, and under what conditions, one may use PD, and what potential may be in store. To do this I may start from a criticism that the book’s authors level at the vertical and hierarchical management method. They argue: “Scarcity, not abundance, is foundational to management hierarchy”. (pg. 139) This criticism may have merit. A nail is a nail is a nail – pass the hammer. Which one? How many types of hammer are there in fact? I’d venture hundreds. They reflect subtle and effective adaptations to the situation: the size of the nail, the material which the nail lodges in, and the number of nails one has to insert to complete the task. The panoply of hammers may also simply reflect idiosyncrasies of workers – varying skills, individual shortcomings; it may be simply cultural (that’s the way we’ve always done it). As clever as an expert may be, when he is called to design the “best hammer” he neither has the time to test all these contingencies nor is it his task to come up with multiple solutions. His task is to find “best practice aka “one size fits all”. Predictably then “best practice” ignores abundance. The choice of a unique model is predicated on the (philosophical) trick of separating out “essence” from “contingence”. There may be an ideal hammer – Plato argued so – but we live in the real world. Any “best practice” is in fact merely a compromise among many situations, hence slightly maladapted to each: one only hopes that the economies from standardization outweigh the sum of the efficiency losses arising from having to use slightly imperfect hammers. Now let’sput this in temporal terms. At the beginning of the age of progressive hammers the expert merely condenses abundance of adaptive solutions into a “best practice” compromise, which is endorsed by authority. It is “explicit knowledge, conventionally delivered like pizza (neat boxes with toppings of concepts, theories, best practices, and war stories).”[1] It may lead to one-off increases in productivity, but is likely to flatten out all diversity.[2] What’s worse, it creates “expert dependence” – the withering of leadership within bowing to authority from without. In the final analysis expertise is external to the social group and requires authority for enforcement as well as a territory of application. Over time new solutions are needed. Instead of going out again to find solutions, solution scarcity is declared. The expert will develop the next iteration and have it imposed top down. The “wisdom of the crowds[3]” is denied (after it has been appropriated). Path-dependency develops – hammer design becomes expert business – and switching back to “crowd-sourcing” fades away. Engineered solutions may be useful – so when the change is limited and technically simple[4]. But this occurs within limits.

  • When new problems arise, it often pays to “crowd-source” – large experience base. Pharmaceutical companies scout the world to discover medicinal properties of plants. Once the active ingredient is developed, tinkering may be done in house.
  • When the issue in enmeshed in a complex social system and requires social and behavioral change grafting “best practice” on it quite often leads to rejection. Such change has to arise from intrinsic motivation[5] of the group.
  • When complex systems are involved, unexpected and unintended consequences emerge. Small steps, and rapid feedback loops are necessarily to see the problems coming. Vertical structures are very poorly equipped to deal with this.
PD is a novel (and ancient way – if we have to believe Laozi) to deal with complex situations where “the community must own the entire adaptive process” if change is to take hold. We have become enamored with the “economic” worldview where each of us is individually surrounded by incentives – prices – and responds passively to them (or ought to) based on fixed and predictable self-interest. We forget that as social animals we mostly interact directly with other people – that’s why we have politics among other social institutions – and continuously adjust our views to the social environment. To assume that we can neatly separate economic and social behavior is deluded. We harp on the fact that collective action will be undermined (the “free-rider” problem) and this inevitably requires coercion rather than empowerment. This ideological – and far from innocent – denial of the intrinsic power of the community and in favor of authority makes adaptation most difficult.[6] Can we fight city hall? Funnily enough, it looks as if this is happening. Increasingly we are recognizing complexity in our lives and in the challenges ahead. What is fascinating is that as these challenges emerge on the horizon, we begin to equip ourselves with novel tools which may make a difference to the solution. Complexity theory, social psychology, analysis and evolution and adaptation in social systems, and now a practical and powerful tool, PD, allow us to rise to the novel defy. They are no older than our generation, though of course, we can find ancient precursors. With such new powerful tools there may be hope ahead!

[1] Richard PASCALE – Jerry STERNIN – Monique STERNIN (2010): The power of positive deviance. How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems. Harvard Business Review Press, Cambridge. (pg. 146)
[2] Best practice may be akin to modern intensive agriculture: only sustainable when supported from outside with all sorts of added inputs – from pesticides to artificial fertilizers. When every plant is a clone, furthermore, any chance of reaction to unexpected or unforeseen change is destroyed and catastrophic collapse of the crop is possible.
[3] See James SUROWIECKI (2004): Wisdom of crowds. Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations. Little Brown, New York.
[4] Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder. Vaccination looked “simple” for a while. What’s easier to understand that a polio vaccine is good for children? The emerging instances of rejection of vaccines show that the assumption of simplicity was misguided. Increasingly we are moving to a situation where expert advice is but one input to a collective decision. A few hundred yards from here a subdivision is being planned. Where to route the 150 truck movements per day has become a critical community issue.
[5] As social animals we are able of sharing intentionality. This “sharing” is not just an accumulation of individual intents, but entails a social process, which needs to be altered if common intentionality has to adapt. “Best practice” on the other hand is exogenous to the community. “The implicit learning we call intuition, know-how, and common sense gets into the bloodstream” by practice and a sense of empowerment.
[6] Rational expectation theory has isolated game-theoretic aspects of a complex situation, better to ferret out the interplay between participants. Fine. It has then moved to delete the context and assert that life can be modeled as a “game”. Sheer nonsense; but this is in itself worth a blog entry.

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