The Power of the Positive Deviants

Saturday, April 7, 2012

It is neither reasonable nor sensible to expect anyone to be a font of all knowledge.

And gurus with their group-think are useful but potentially dangerous when they suppress competitive paradigms.

So where does an Improvement Scientist seek reliable and trustworthy inspiration?

Guessing is a poor guide; gut-instinct can seriously mislead; and mind-altering substances are illegal, unreliable or both!

So who are the sources of tested ideas and where do we find them?

They are called Positive Deviants and they are everywhere.


But, the phrase positive deviant does not feel quite right does it? The word “deviant” has a strong negative emotional association. We are socially programmed from birth to treat deviations from the norm with distrust and for good reason. Social animals view conformity and similarity as security – it is our herd instinct. Anyone who looks or behaves too far from the norm is perceived as odd and therefore a potential threat and discounted or shunned.

So why consider deviants at all? Well, because anyone who behaves significantly differently from the majority is a potential source of new insight – so long as we know how to separate the positive deviants from the negative ones.

Negative deviants display behaviours that we could all benefit from by actively discouraging!  The NoNo or thou-shalt-not behaviours that are usually embodied in Law.  Killing, stealing, lying, speeding, dropping litter – that sort of thing. The anti-social trust-eroding conflict-generating behaviour that poisons the pond that we all swim in.

Positive deviants display behaviours that we could all benefit from actively encouraging! The NiceIf behaviours. But we are habitually focussed more on self-protection than self-development and we generalise from specifics. So we treat all deviants the same – we are wary of them. And by so doing we miss many valuable opportunities to learn and to improve.


How then do we identify the Positive Deviants?

The first step is to decide the dimension we want to improve and choose a suitable metric to measure it.

The second step is to measure the metric for everyone and do it over time – not just at a point in time. Single point-in-time measurements (snapshots) are almost useless – we can be tricked by the noise in the system into poor decisions.

The third step is to plot our measure-for-improvement as a time-series chart and look at it.  Are there points at the positive end of the scale that deviate significantly from the average? If so – where and who do they come from? Is there a pattern? Is there anything we might use as a predictor of positive deviance?

Now we separate the data into groups guided by our proposed predictors and compare the groups. Do the Positive Deviants now stick out like a sore thumb? Did our predictors separate the wheat from the chaff?

If so we next go and investigate.  We need to compare and contrast the Positive Deviants with the Norms. We need to compare and contrast both their context and their content. We need to know what is similar and what is different. There is something that is causing the sustained deviation and we need to search until we find it – and then we need know how and why it is happening.

We need to separate associations from causations … we need to understand the chains of events that lead to the better outcomes.

Only then will a new Door to Opportunity magically appear in our Black Wall of Ignorance – a door that leads to a proven path of improvement. A path that has been trodden before by a Positive Deviant – or by a whole tribe of them.

And only we ourselves can choose to open the door and explore the path – we cannot be pushed through by someone else.

When our system is designed to identify and celebrate the Positive Deviants then the negative deviants will be identified too! And that helps too because they will light the path to more NoNos that we can all learn to avoid.

For more about positive deviance from Wikipedia click here

For a case study on positive deviance click here

NB: The terms NiceIfs  and NoNos are two of the N’s on The 4N Chart® – the other two are Nuggets and Niggles.