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The Power of Positive Deviance:

How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems

by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin

ISBN: 978-1-4221-1066-9


–Review by Douglas Balzer


In 2008 I was introduced to the concept of positive deviance by a mentor. When I first heard the combination of the words “positive deviance” it took some effort to wrap my mind around it. Eventually, the concept became the basis for what informed my dissertation. If you have followed the book reviews I have done for Preach the Story so far, it is apparent that I am drawn to thought-provoking ideologies and practices. So, let me introduce you to the book that started a revolution in my semiotics and thinking, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems! It is my hope this book will inspire your creative ability to read the signs of what is happening around you in society and allow you to awaken the positive deviant within you.

What do we do when we are face complex issues? Intractable problems that are resilient and exist in every nuance of human society on the planet are all around us, and we live with them daily –resistant issues like homelessness, poverty, malnutrition, disease, racism, hospital staph infections, immigration to name a few and much more that can be classified as human rights and social justice issues. And right in the midst of these problems stands the Church of Jesus the Anointed One. So, how do we deal with these matters? What actions does it take to end the cycle of resilience? According to the authors, the answer is found in the praxis of positive deviance through unlikely practitioners that usually go unnoticed, yet they are the force that moves cultural changes once their deviance is tapped within the context, it becomes a catalyst for a cultural shift without being recognized. Yes, positive deviance is typically an invisible force that works into society via osmosis or an infection. It is more caught than taught. Here is the reason most people do not recognize it or understand their own individual positive deviance behavior.

What the authors present to us is that problems that are resilient or intractable, those that just won’t go away with money being thrown at them or over the top interventions, tend to have the following essential characteristics. First, the problem is not technical in nature. Rather there are significant social and behavioral aspects to them. Second, the problem is resilient meaning there have been multiple attempts to resolve the problem without much or any success. Third, there are positive deviants present, people, who are embedded within the issue that have already solved the problem but they themselves nor those around them realize they have. Why are people unaware of their own success is one of the questions I raised reading this information. Regardless, the news that someone within the situation has solved the problem is good news. The standard procedure then is to find the positive deviant and tap their methods, figure out what they are doing and copy it, design a program that teaches others to do exactly the same thing, and the problem is solved, right? Wrong! It would be great if reality worked this way when dealing with problems that have deep roots within society and behavior except it does not work.

The problem is not so much what to do as it is how to get people to engage and follow through with the actions that will reduce or eliminate the resilient problem. How do we get people to do it? The authors recognize this is the core issue, the challenge of not what but how. Through their fieldwork and experience, the Sternin’s developed some guiding principles for the application of positive deviance. They demonstrate the effectiveness of the positive deviance (PD) process through several inspiring stories in the book. So, there is a narrative aspect in the book that takes you into the heart of the PD experience and allows you to ruminate and resonate with the ideology. Here are the PD approach guiding principles the Sternin’s developed for “How to get people to do it.”

  • The community owns the entire process. It has to be their idea coming from within their cultural and social construct.
  • Involve everyone in the process. “Don’t do anything about me without me.” The definite buy-in must be in place. Otherwise, the process loses is effectiveness and builds resentment.
  • The community itself engages in the PD inquiry, not external over the top experts. The answers to resolving or mitigating the problem come from within the community. This includes adapting to their own situation the abnormal, successful behaviors and strategies of the positive deviants within.
  • The involvement of the community exposes them to the social proof. “Someone like me” can get results, even in distressed situations. It brings about the social and cultural transformation from within not from without.
  • The emphasis is on practices and not on knowledge. “How ” is asked instead of teaching the “why” or “what.” In the social and cultural context, it is a practice that reconfigures behaviors is what the research found. “. . . knowledge doesn’t advance practice. Rather, practice advances (and internalizes) knowledge.”
  • The community creates its own benchmarks and monitors its own progress. In other words, the community owns the entire process.

It should be noted that within the PD process the movement toward solutions to the resilient issues is not a quick fix or as some say a big-bang effect reorganization; it is smaller incremental steps. It reminds me of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development founded on micro-actions for configuring behaviors. It makes sense because any cultural paradigm shifts come first through small steps that build upon one another resulting in a transfiguration of society. The PD process has the goal of leaving as much cultural DNA intact as possible.

The PD process is counterintuitive to western thinking and management styles. We tend to focus too much on the “what” and not enough on the “how” for understanding. We like the technical approach, the “what,” the practices and tools that make positive deviants successful. We even exacerbate the situation by being the “experts” in leading change when we do not even understand the culture we are working within. In our western thinking process, we like to have detailed delineations of the problem when it is nuanced by complex socio-cultural drama. If we don’t have the details, we create them at times to fill the need within our own minds. Education has been touted as the best way to raise people up out of their problems in our cultural context. What if this is wrong for other settings or even our own? Positive deviance is a paradigm shift to the training we have received. It reverses our process because it starts with changing practices rather than knowledge. Wisdom comes with practice and experience not necessarily from knowledge. The conventional wisdom is turned upside down with the PD process. The authors write,

. . . it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting… Once positive deviance behaviors have been discovered, the design must provide those who seek to learn with both the opportunity and the means to practice the new behavior. A focus on practice rather than knowledge has proven to be a key element in bringing about lasting behavioral change…

The use of the deliberate practice of a new behavior or the desired behavior is what brings about the reconfiguring of culture. The application of the business ideology of “Best Practice” may have come to your mind throughout this review, but do not be confused PD is not the same as Best Practices. The two should not be confused. Best Practices are identified by upper managements or management teams within a corporate setting. Yes, corporations do have cultures, but PD basis is in the discovery by the practitioners themselves promoting buy-in, easier acceptance, and lasting change. It is not a top-down model, but an inversion that the best ideas are coming from the bottom up.

The book is filled with various stories that demonstrate the use of the PD process by practitioners. The indication is the PD process has a broad application including working to bring about genuine changes to culture and society by incrementally breaking down the resilient and intractable problems faced by vast swaths of human society. It is definitely not a quick fix or instant gratification solution, but by the indicators probably one of the most productive forces to bring significant transformation to human behavior and practices.

The book provides a bonus feature ending with a “Basic Field Guide to Positive Deviance.” The guide is written in step by step format. The primary activities found within the PD process are laid out for the reader to follow. Also, there are practical tips the authors picked up along their journey. One of the most powerful is “Let silence speak! Pause for 20 seconds after asking a question. That’s long enough to sign happy birthday. Try it; you will be amazed how long 20 seconds is!”

Well, I hope you get the chance to read this remarkable book and enjoy the counterintuitive approach as much as I did.