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I love the phrase Positive Deviance. There is something deeply satisfying in the way the ‘positive’ inverts the negative expectations of the ‘deviance’. And when it is applied to internal marketing and change management it becomes even more gratifying, as you will see.


Positive Deviance is a problem-solving methodology based on the fact that in every community of people facing the same challenges, equipped with the same access to the same resources, there are those whose uncommon behaviours help them find better solutions than their peers.


The Birth of the Idea


The idea of Positive Deviance first gained currency when a husband and wife team helped solve a malnutrition crisis in rural Vietnam in the 90’s. True story – let me explain.


After decades of failed attempts to deal with the issue, Save the Children finally deployed Monique and Jim Sternin as a last-ditch effort to see if an alternative approach could work. It did.


Keep an Open Mind


With no pre-conceived ideas, they simply starting observing and gathering data. What they found was that despite all families living with the same constraints of food availability, poverty and lack of medicines, some kids were flourishing. By chatting with their mothers and observing their meal preparation activities they noticed some key differences.


Break Bad Rules


Where mothers of malnourished kids removed all the shrimps and crabs from the rice before cooking it, the ‘postive deviants’ left these important sources of protein in. The positive deviants also added sweet potato leaves to their meals [which was considered taboo] and instead of feeding their kids just twice a day which was the norm, they fed their kids 3 or 4 times a day.


Show Don’t Tell


At this point, it must have been tempting to shout their findings from the rooftops and engage in a communication campaign

to tell the ‘negative deviants’ what their more successful positive deviant neighbours were up to, but they didn’t, and this decision is critical.


Instead, the Sternins invited deviant and non-deviant mothers to cook a meal together. The results were astonishing. 40% of previously malnourished kids were rehabilitated once the positive deviance practices had been taken up by their mothers.


Ordinary People Have Extraordinary Wisdom


The message from the Sternins was simply that, “Solutions to intractable problems already exist. They have been devised by the ordinary people without special resources!” This positive deviance was later rolled out across Vietnam and positively impacted over 1m children. It has subsequently been replicated in over 40 countries.


Positive Deviance in Corporate Environments


Positive Deviance has subsequently been used in hundreds of organisations and communities around the world, and is a methodology that we have used in much of the employee engagement and change management work that we are involved in at Actuate. For us, the real beauty in this approach is that people are learning from their peers – people who work under the same systemic constraints and therefore have in-built authenticity and credibility.


The 5 Ds of Positive Deviance

In our experience there are five basic steps that serve as the backbone of the approach:

  1. Define the problem, its causes and common practices, and articulate a desired outcome

  2. Determine the presence of Positive Deviants

  3. Discover their uncommon but successful behaviours & strategies

  4. Develop activities based on the inquiry findings

  5. Discern (monitor and evaluate) the results


So next time you have a difficult problem, you may want to look at the existing solutions and the people who have them in your organisation. These steps will give you a basic template that can be adapted to the particular situation you are trying to address.


Find Out More

You can find out more about Positive Deviance in the link below, and you can call Actuate if you’d like us to help put a programme or a campaign together for you. We have successfully applied the principles of Positive Deviance in several large organisations around challenges relating to sales, service, culture and customer interaction.


Discover more about Positive Deviance at


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