Positive Deviance
(Pascale Sternin)

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What is the Positive Deviance model? Description

According to Richard Tanner Pascale and Jerry Sternin, there are always positive exceptions to rules concerning business problems. Somehow, a few isolated groups or individuals, operating with the same constraints and resources as everyone else, are functioning better. In the HBR of May 2005, they describe their Positive Deviance method. This holds that managers must actively look for those extraordinarily successful groups and individuals, and bring the isolated success strategies of these "positive deviants" into the mainstream. Best practice Change Management methods are not good at realizing this. That's why Pascale and Sternin suggest to ensure the participation of the members of the community which you want to change in the process of discovery. In this way you can make them the evangelists of their own conversion experience. Also they describe a six-step positive deviance model.

Origin of the Positive Deviance approach. History

Pascale and Sternin do not mention Cooperrider in their article. Nor do they explicitly mention Appreciative Inquiry. However it is clear that their approach is based on similar ideas about organizational change. Pascale and Sternin make the following comparison of the Traditional Approach to Change vs. the Positive Deviance Approach to Change:

Traditional Approach to Change

Positive Deviance Approach to Change

Leadership as Path Breaker




Vulnerable to Transplant Rejection

Flows from Problem Solving towards Solution Identification

Focused on the Protagonists

Leadership as Inquiry




Open to Self-Replication

Flows from Solution Identification towards Problem Solving

Focused on Enlarging the Network

Usage of Positive Deviance. Applications

  • See below under strengths and limitations

Six Steps in Positive Deviance. Process

  1. Make the group the guru. Champions and Change Leaders are important, but too often, these individuals generate unconstructive dependence from their teams.
  2. Reframe through facts. Problems must be restated. Rather than starting with an inside-the-box definition. The attention can shift to fertile new grounds and minds are opened to new possibilities.
  3. Make it safe to learn. The positive deviants, the authority figures and the others in the group may all may feel that journeying into terra incognita is a dangerous thing to do. A safe environment must be created that supports innovative ideas.
  4. Make the problem concrete. Otherwise, signal distortion between senders and receivers can quickly cause unwanted effects.
  5. Leverage social proof. The old adage: "Seeing is believing" has special potency when you are dealing with change. Find and communicate examples of solutions that have worked in similar situations.
  6. Confound the immune defense response. Prevent avoidance, resistance and exceptionalism and let the change feel natural. Don't use excessive authority.

Strengths of the Positive Deviance approach. Benefits

  • The method works best for situations where behavioral and attitudinal changes are called for. Where there is no apparent off-the-shelf remedy, and successful coping strategies remain isolated and concealed.
  • Facilitates a role reversal in which experts become learners, teachers become students, and leaders become followers.

Limitations of the Positive Deviance model. Disadvantages

  • Not suited for change initiatives around proven remedies to technical problems. The authors mention Supply Chain Management practices, hardware and software solutions.
  • Not suited for problems that rely on brainpower but that don't require major behavioral adjustments. The authors mention portfolio rebalancing.
  • Requires a role reversal in which experts become learners, teachers become students, and leaders become followers.
  • Creating a safe environment that supports innovative ideas may sometimes not be simple.

Assumptions of the Positive Deviance method. Conditions

  • There are always positive exceptions to rules concerning business problems. Somehow, a few isolated groups or individuals, operating with the same constraints and resources as everyone else, function better.
  • Best practice Change Management methods are not good at bringing successes to the mainstream.
  • If you ensure the participation of people, their avoidance, resistance and exceptionalism will decrease.
  • Time is not the issue.
  • Leaders want to step back and facilitate the process.
  • Positive deviants are willing to share.

Special Interest Group

Positive Deviance Special Interest Group.

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Forum discussions about Positive Deviance. Below you can ask a question about this topic, share your experiences, report a new development, or explain something.

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🔥 NEW Positive Deviance is True but Useless
You allude to it, but I think you should make a more explicit reference to the concept of TBU (True but useless) as it applies to PD....
Great exercise (at least annually)
Leaders learning, teachers becoming students - the humility and genuine interest displayed in new ways of thinking, from all levels within the company, helps build morale. "Concrete problems" and "sa...
Positive Deviance and Horizontal Violence
Has anyone used this method to address horizontal violence / workplace bullying?...

Best Practices

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Expert Tips

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Compare with the Positive Deviance Approach: Appreciative Inquiry  |  Change Management Iceberg  |  Forget Borrow Learn  |  Kaizen  |  Business Process Reengineering  |  Change Model Beckhard  |  DICE Framework  |  Changing Organization Cultures  |  Action Learning  |  Change Phases  |  Force Field Analysis  |  Core Group Theory  |  MSP  |  Bases of Social Power  |  Planned Behavior  |  Metaplan  |  Team Management Profile

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