#8 — Start with positive deviance

📸 by Taryn Elliott on Pexels

The traditional approach to dealing with complex challenges often starts with problems. What’s stopping us from achieving the outcomes we hope to achieve and what solutions might we develop to solve these problems.

This is perfectly logical. But sometimes, misses the opportunity to amplify great practices that are already present within a group. It misses the opportunity to amplify positive deviance.

Positive deviance: 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 analysed, isolated, and then shared with the rest of the group.

A lot of the work I do is with front line services. Within most teams, there is someone who has found a practice that enables them to work more effectively, more quickly, to get better outcomes or that just makes them happier from day to day without any additional time or resources.

Oftentimes, these individuals won’t readily share these practices. They fear they are doing something wrong. I’ve found that introducing the concept of positive deviance at the beginning of a project or workshop helps to uncover them. This story about how Jerry and Monique Sternin used the approach to tackle malnourishment in rural Vietnam serves a perfect frame, particularly for those working in frontline roles. Helpfully, there is also a liberating structure, ‘Discovery and Action Dialogues’, that is designed to surface positive deviance efficiently.

Next time you are collaborating to solve a complex challenge, consider starting with positive deviance.



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Joseph Badman

Joseph Badman


MD @WeAreBasis. I help public services solve messy problems one sprint at a time. Part-time wizard, meet-free meathead & self-management nerd 🎩🌍🤓.