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Positive Deviance and “Bright Spot” Analysis

When solving complex problems, it sometimes pays to start with what is working rather than figure out what is not…

When solving problems there are four frames from which you can approach the solution. Systems centric, problem centric, solutions centric and solver centric.

A solution centric approach, such as “Bright spot” analysis or positive deviance analysis, is particularly useful for complex systems with lots of interactions (like social issues). In these systems there are so many variables it can be very difficult, and frequently counter-productive, to apply a problem centric approach such as root cause analysis.

Positive deviance analysis was developed by Monique and Jerry Sternin, who needed to turn around the health of a local Vietnamese community where they were aid workers. They noticed that

In every community, organization, or social group, there are individuals whose exceptional behaviours or practices enable them to get better results than their neighbours with the exact same resources. Without realizing it, these “positive deviants” have discovered the path to success for the entire group — that is, if their secrets can be analyzed, isolated, and then shared with the rest of the group.

An SSIR article summarises the results when they adopted this approach:

They … observed the food preparation, cooking, and serving behaviors of these six families, called “positive deviants,” and found a few consistent yet rare behaviors. Parents of well-nourished children collected tiny shrimps, crabs, and snails from rice paddies and added them to the food, along with the greens from sweet potatoes. Although these foods were readily available, they were typically not eaten because they were considered unsafe for children. The positive deviants also fed their children multiple smaller meals, which allowed small stomachs to hold and digest more food each day.

The Sternins and the rest of their group worked with the positive deviants to offer cooking classes to the families of children suffering from malnutrition. By the end of the program’s first year, 80 percent of the 1,000 children enrolled in the program were adequately nourished. In addition, the effort had been replicated within 14 villages across Vietnam.

So when should you apply the positive deviance approach?

  • the problem is not exclusively technical and requires behavioral or/and social change
  • the problem is “intractable” — other solutions haven’t worked
  • positive deviants are thought to exist
  • there is a sponsorship and local leadership commitment to address the issue

(Ref — The Power of Positive Deviance — Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin)

In their book “Switch”, Chip and Dan Heath outline the process to go about a Bright Spot analysis

  1. Gather the data
  2. Study the data to find bright spot / unusually positive performers
  3. Make sure you understand the normal way things are done
  4. Study the bright spots to see what they are doing differently
  5. make sure none of those practices are exceptional in some way (ie extra money or resources)
  6. Find a way to reproduce the practices of the bright spots among other people

Some shortcuts that might help you identify positive deviant behaviour.

  • Ask the exception question — when does the problem you are fighting not happen?
  • Ask the miracle question — You wake up in the morning and your problems are solved. What’s the first small sign that things have changed?
  • Make sure the bright spot is about you — Bright spots are specific to you and your team. Where are YOU succeeding now, or where have YOU succeeded before? By pinpointing those moments, you can avoid triggering the “not invented here” reaction.
  • What is working today and how can you do more of it?

Jane Bozarth recommends a great way to start identifying bright spots is to flip the question you are asking. Is there someone in the community already exhibiting the desired behavior? What is enabling them to outperform? What resources are they tapping into that others are not?

  • Not “Why are staph infections so high in the hospital?” but “Why are staph infections lower on the third floor?”
  • Not “Why are sales down in Regions 6 and 9?” but “Why are sales up in Region 4?”
  • Not “Why do so few graduates of our leadership academy get promoted?” but “Why did these seven graduates get promoted?”
  • Why is the accident rate lower in _______? Why is the turnover rate lower in ______? Why are there fewer ethics complaints about ______ division?
  • Not “how do we get more females in leadership roles” but “Why have these female executives succeeded and thrived through their careers?”

A practical example of applying this process is provided by Dave McKinsey in his book Strategic story telling.

…Go out and interview the top ten performers. Rather than asking them what they do or what they would do in the abstract, apply an anthropological approach by asking them to walk you step- by- step through a recent transaction they completed. How did they first identify the prospect? How did they make first contact? What resources did they bring to bear during the sales process? Who was involved in the decision? How did they close the transaction? As you interview multiple people, you will start to hear patterns. Rather than asking the ineffective question, “What are your best practices?” you are discovering best practices by listening for behaviors common among successful people. Most bright spot analyses stop there. However, the best go through the exact same anthropological interview processes with the bottom performers. That step is critical because bright spots are behaviors top performers apply that bottom performers do not.

For more information this basic field guide approach to positive deviance is a great source.

Leaving the final word to the originators (Pascale, Strenin and Sternin) -

The job is to guide the PD process as it unfolds… Leadership begins with framing the challenge in a compelling way so as to engage others in generating an alternative future. Next, the task is to catalyze a conversation, … and ensure the group takes ownership of its quest. The hardest part is to listen, pay attention, trust the process and the “wisdom of crowds,” and permit the emergent potential of the community to express itself. A weathered marble tablet in Xian, China, commemorates the wisdom of Taoist sage, Lao-Tzu. A loose translation … captures the essence of leadership in the positive deviance context with eloquent simplicity:

Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know

Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people all remark
We have done it ourselves

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Tom Connor

Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and create change