Harvest and amplify the positive outliers

I’ve was reading up on positive deviance (PD) over the weekend. Whilst the terminology is new to me the sentiment is certainly not and it was really quite exciting to discover someone with far more experience in the field thinking along the same lines as me.

Before continuing though just a word on what I mean by change. Organisational change is situational. It happens when something starts or stops: it could be structural, economic, technological or demographic. I think what most of us mean by organisational change is really transition – the psychological process that accompanies change and invariably extends over a period of time.

Things can and do change quickly, people do not. This is important as change management for me is really all about transition management. It’s about addressing the complex and very challenging people issues rather than the more straightforward situational ones.

With figures almost mirroring the failure rate of mergers & acquisitions, it’s generally accepted that organisational change initiatives fail more often than not. Poor communication is often blamed in both instances, so my own profession can take a bit of a shoeing at such times.

Maybe that is why what Jerry Sternin has to say on the subject resonates with me. His experiences led him to conclude that “the traditional model for social and organizational change doesn’t work, it never has. You can’t bring permanent solutions in from outside”. I know I’m not alone in expressing the following sentiment: all too often change consultants ride into town, offer their wisdom, collect their fees, and then head off into the sunset to refine their models, do a bit more research and write another book. Meanwhile the company reverts to form.

Jerry and Monique Sternin set the PD ball rolling after their work with Save the Children in Vietnam in the 1990’s where they used it to great effect to tackle child malnutrition. The Sternins’ approach was based on the belief that in every community there are individuals whose exceptional behaviours or practices enable them to get better results than their peers using exactly the same resources.

The real challenge is to find a way to ‘infect’ the rest of the community with their behaviours and practices. The Sternins found that such infection took place where new behaviours were encouraged rather than knowledge taught: “Once you find deviant behaviours, don’t tell people about them. It’s not a transfer of knowledge. It’s not about importing best practices from somewhere else. It’s about changing behaviour. You design an intervention that requires and enables people to access and to act on these new premises. You enable people to practice a new behaviour, not to sit in a class learning about it.”

In Vietnam, the Sternins proved that PD worked, and their groundbreaking work has since served as a model for rehabilitating tens of thousands of children in 20 countries, and PD is now being applied around the world to change behaviour in a variety of other social and organisational situations, such as the spread of AIDs in the Third World and ethnic conflicts in Africa.

Here is a list of the steps set out in a Fast Company interview with Jerry Sternin that I have been reading.

  1. Don’t presume that you have the answer – start by listening, not talking.
  2. Don’t assume you need to go cross functional – the aim is not to produce a lively conversation among diverse individuals. Everyone in the group that you want to help change must identify with the others in the group and face the same challenges and rely on the same set of resources to come up with answers. If the group feels that you’re going outside to where things are culturally different, then it becomes another way to impose best practice, and you’re not using PD.
  3. Let them do it themselves – let the group discover, on their own, a better way to do things. Raise questions, but let the group come up with the answers on its own.
  4. Identify conventional wisdom – before you can recognise how the positive deviants stray from conventional wisdom, you first have to understand clearly what the accepted behaviour is.
  5. Identify and analyze the deviants – single out what exactly makes them successful.
  6. Let the deviants adopt deviations on their own – enable people to practice new behaviours, not to sit in class learning about them.
  7. Track results and publicise them – publish the results, show how they were achieved and let other groups develop their own curiosity about them. Celebrate success when you achieve it.  Chip away at conventional wisdom and demonstrate what can be achieved through PD.
  8. Repeat steps 1 to 7 – make the process cyclical. Deviation from the norm can quickly become the norm, at which point the chances are that PDs have discovered new deviations from the new norm.

I really like the sound of this approach.

I’m not going to rush out and start evangelising as I have yet to read any compelling evidence about its success in a hardcore business setting. I suspect every company has positive deviants lurking around somewhere. It could be the sales team that consistently outsells the rest despite making fewer calls. It could be the Finance team that consistently has the lowest churn rate in the company and the highest engagement scores in the annual staff survey. It could be the Help Desk team that always receives the highest number of customer commendations despite being the most under-staffed.

I like the look of PD as it does not make assumptions. This has to be a good thing as change management can be very formulaic and in my book there can never be a one size fits all solution to successful organisational change. Just because a particular approach worked in company A, it does not follow that the same intervention will work in company B.

And instead of focusing on solutions PD seeks to identify underlying successful behaviours already inside an organisation and leverage them.

That sounds pretty powerful to me.

2 thoughts on “Harvest and amplify the positive outliers

  1. I like this a lot at a number of levels–it finds solutions from within the system, it transfers thinking and skills from the most successful and avoids killing off the most successful players–and best of all, it flies directly in the face of the top-down-one-size-fits-all fixation that crushes effectiveness in the name of an illusory simplicity.


    Mike Klein

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