Lessons from Positive Deviance
Updated on 06 March 2023
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).” It may lead to one-off increases in productivity, but is likely to flatten out all diversity. 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” 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. 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 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.