“Deviance” has been referred to as intentional behaviors that depart from organizational or societal norms in a negative way, thereby threatening the well-being of its members. The perpetrators were labelled “deviants”.
A new term, “positive deviance” has emerged to describe intentional behaviors that significantly depart in honorable ways from the norms of a referent group.
The idea here is that sometimes there are individuals or groups least likely to be successful preventing or overcoming a widely shared problem or situation who are indeed successful, despite facing the same or worse challenges and barriers than, and having access to the same as or fewer resources as their colleagues, peers or neighbors.
In other words, they deviate in a positive way from what was assumed and expected. This is positive deviance, and these individuals are referred to as “positive deviants”.
Positive deviance was first operationalized in the 1990’s when a “save the children” project in Vietnam found that 64% of children were malnourished. It was determined that the families of the 36% well-nourished children followed uncommon but successful strategies of collecting foods considered inappropriate for children (sweet potato greens, shrimp and crabs), washed their children’s hands before meals, and actively fed them three to four times a day instead of the typical two meals.
They demonstrated that “it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking as opposed to thinking your way into a new way of acting”.
Businesses are rife with positive deviance. Positive deviants use a problem solving, asset-based approach grounded in the fact that communities have assets or resources they haven’t tapped. The approach enables us to discover, then leverage uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies to solve a perceived problem and bring about sustainable change by identifying solutions already existing in the system.
In order to identify positive deviants in your organization, you need to understand what positive deviance is look for people who use uncommon methods to solve common problems.
In my associations with companies, I have witnessed positive deviance numerous times and am proud to be associated with organizations that consistently address situations with uncommon yet workable solutions.