3 March 2012

Positive Deviance

Over the years I have seen some tweets and posts with the phrase positive deviance and generally assumed this to mean the variation from normal on the winners side of the bell curve. Yesterday I started reading Rabovich and DeRosa's (Nov 2011) paper "Patterns of Success in Systems Engineering" which prefaces its findings with an explanation of the idea of positive deviance.

While I was on the right track, it turns out that positive deviance has a lot more to it.  Positive deviance has a Wikipedia article where you can read about the concept and where it came from. I want to talk about how it is relevant to me and my job.  A couple of quick ideas for now.  I'll be reading more soon.

Positive deviance and best practices
I rant against best practices every opportunity I can.  Apart from the popular notion that best practices are a red herring because there are usually many equally good pathways to a result, it also assumes a best.  This leads to the limiting idea that you can't beat the competition, you can only match them.

What if, instead we looked at what the best performers did and tried to emulate the parts that will work in our circumstances.  A combination of positive patterns, customised for our situation might give us some sort of real advantage. And what if there were no "best" and instead we always just looked to "better" as our aspirational state.

Positive deviance and lessons learned
Lessons learned so often focus on what went wrong.  Our response is usually to try to plug the gaps in our performance.  In other contexts we think about improving outcomes by exploiting strengths. Why don't we look to the success patterns and adjust the way we operate to be more like them?

Positive deviance and risk management
Risk management, like our lessons learned example above, tends to focus on avoiding problems.  Risk management is a continuing activity with multiple risks constantly adding and subtracting to the net (negative) risk of the project. What if instead of an almost exclusive focus on managing negative risk, we were able to invest in maximising positive risk as well?


  1. good post, www.projectcoach.com.au

  2. Great post, thanks!

    During change, I always pay attention to the strenghs and successes. I use techniques like solution focused, appreciative inquiry and angels advocate ( http://www.benlinders.com/2011/devil%e2%80%99s-or-angel%e2%80%99s-advocate-which-role-do-you-prefer/) to help people to find solutions bases upon their strenghts. I have found that it gives people energy, and results in lasting change.

  3. Positive Deviants usually go against accepted wisdom. This is what stops their successful behaviors from spreading to the rest of the company.

    My own experiences bears this out. I was the most successful hiring manager in one of my previous companies. Despite creating well documented hiring process (with a solid theory behind it) that had incredible track record, which I explained to everyone who would listen the other hiring managers always had to improve my process to bring it more in line with "best practice". The results of which while they reduced the number of hiring failures they never enjoyed the same success as I did.

    I first learnt about positive deviance from one of the Heath brothers' book ('Made to Stick' maybe, they call them bright spots). If you read the original material by Sternin and Pascale there are a lot gems in there. Unfortunate the consultants have jumped on the band wagon and their is a lot of rubbish put out their as Positive Deviance.

  4. Thanks for the reference Geoff. I am downloading PDFs as we speak.