Harnessing the positive deviance approach to solving social problems

The positive deviance (PD) approach is based on the belief that in every community there are particular individuals or groups whose uncommon but successful behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers. This is despite facing similar challenges and while having access to the same resources.

Through an analysis of successful PD implementations in Vietnam and Argentina, a new paper[1] in The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management shows how unearthing tacit knowledge is fundamental to the PD approach, and represents a source of creativity and inspiration for finding effective solutions.

In Vietnam, the social problem was childhood malnutrition. The positive deviants were poor families that had managed to avoid malnutrition without access to any special resources. These PD families were found to collect tiny shrimps and crabs from paddy fields and add them to their children’s meals. These foods are rich in protein and minerals. They also added greens of sweet potato plants to their children’s meals, with these greens being rich in essential micro nutrients. These foods were accessible to everyone, but most community members believed they were inappropriate for young children. The PD families also gave their children more frequent meals, and made sure that their children ate what was given to them.

To spread the activities of the positive deviants to other families, a nutrition program with an emphasis on doing, rather than just seeing or hearing, was implemented. It was a great success: “Malnutrition decreased by an amazing 85 percent in the first 14 PD communities. Over the next several years, the PD intervention became a nationwide program in Vietnam, helping over 2.2 million people, including over 500,000 children improve their nutritional status.”

In Argentina, the social problem was school dropout rates. Because of the deeply-ingrained traditional roles that young children in Argentina’s rural province of Misiones played in family farming, half of all children dropped out of school before the 6th grade. However, not every elementary school in Misiones had such high dropout rates. The researchers engaged with teachers in one such school in an attempt to identify PD practices, but they were initially met with strong skepticism. They persevered, and subsequent workshops involving parents, teachers, and school administrators identified schools with high retention rates which were then studied to identify PD practices.

The PD inquiry yielded specific and verifiable practices in the way teachers and parents interacted with students, in the way classes were taught and assessed, in how the community was involved, and how children’s nutrition schedule was constructed. An action plan was then designed and implemented, building upon the foundation of making the local knowledge and solutions actionable. In subsequent years, school dropout rates in Misiones dropped significantly.

From these case studies, the researchers denoted five stages in the identification and amplification of the tacit knowledge of “deviant” individuals. Once identified, the tacit knowledge of the PD individuals became explicit and manifested itself in collective practice.

The five stages are:

  1. Elimination of barriers — Recognising that unearthed tacit knowledge can help the community breakout of their normative “mental prisons.” Amplification of tacit knowledge is often thwarted by traditional perceptions and habitual ways of doing things. People become imprisoned by their own ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions. To facilitate amplification of tacit knowledge and produce widespread social change, it is important to “release” the prisoners from their “mental prisons”. That is, to change the ritualistic, habitual way of thinking and acting. Altering old behaviours and customary thinking in Vietnam required a credible example that better nutrition outcomes could be achieved, and in Argentina a safe setting where the actors could dare to question the old ways in order to discover new possibilities.
  2. Identifying knowledge carriers — Identifying the positive deviants, the carriers of the authentic experience and valuable tacit knowledge. While new knowledge is usually suspect, the positive deviant households in Vietnam served two key roles: firstly, they were the source of the valuable tacit knowledge, and secondly, their perceived similarity with others in the community granted them trust and legitimacy. However, just identifying the carriers of valuable knowledge alone couldn’t bring about a change in thinking and action. It was important to create conditions for triggering a more rippling social change.
  3. Creating conditions — Creation of particular conditions to facilitate the “paradigm shift”. That is, conscious-raising among community members who themselves see the value of questioning old deep-seated attitudes and practices, replacing them with newly-discovered insights. The human mind undergoes a highly complex mix of cognitive and emotional pulls in responding to change, whether complying with or resisting it. This process involves human perception and feelings as well as knowledge of social norms. To assist humans to recognize the need for and possibility of change, particular conditions can be created that may help to increase chances that people “will make changes themselves”. Early inclusion and broad participation in the problem-solving helped community members to increase their understanding about the essence of the problem and to give each participant the feeling of “ownership” in the collaborative search and elaboration of its solution.
  4. Mechanism of knowledge transfer — Knowledge amplification occurs as more and more community members embrace the new practice, spurred by the self-discovery of its beneficial outcomes. The Vietnam and Argentina cases revealed the importance of community members being intimately involved in the process of knowledge amplification, where major mechanism of knowledge transfer was their own self-discovery of the solutions that resided among them. Once the solutions were discovered, they were “owned” by the community members. That is, they did not have to “buy-into” an external change agency’s prescriptions.
  5. Justification mechanism for the new knowledge adoption — The adoption of new knowledge is being justified by the social proof that other ordinary people like them, within their own community, have solved the problem. When people are in doubt about a course of action, they want to know what others are doing, especially their peers. People are inclined to consider the adoption of behaviors in a given situation if they see others performing it. This social proof was an important condition for the knowledge to be amplified in the cases of Vietnam and Argentina.


  1. Slettli, V. and Singhal, A. (2017). Identification and Amplification of Tacit Knowledge: The Positive Deviance Approach as Knowledge Management Praxis. The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management 15(1) pp17–27. Available online at www.ejkm.com

Originally published at RealKM.