Secret Change Agents / Positive Deviance

From Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP)

Your Company’s Secret Change Agents

by Richard Tanner Pascale and Jerry Sternin, Harvard Business Review, May 2005

Somewhere in your organization, groups of people are already doing things differently and better. To create lasting change, find these areas of positive deviance and fan their flames.

Some business problems never seem to get fixed, no matter how hard people try. But if you look closely, you’ll find that the tyranny of averages always conceals sparkling exceptions to the rule. Somehow, a few isolated groups and individuals, operating with the same constraints and resources as everyone else, prevail against the odds.

Bridging the gap between what is happening and what is possible is what change management is all about. The traditional process for creating organizational change involves digging deep to uncover the root causes of problems, hiring experts or importing best-of-breed practices, and assigning a strong role to leaders as champions of change. We believe there is a better method, one that looks for indigenous sources of change. There are people in your company or group who are already doing things in a radically better way. The process we advocate seeks to bring the isolated success strategies of these “positive deviants” into the mainstream. Ordinary change management methods don’t do a very good job at that: Managers either overlook the isolated successes under their noses or, having spotted them, repackage the discoveries as templates and disseminate them from the top. This seldom generates the enthusiasm necessary to create change.

Six Step Positive Deviance Model

  1. Make the group the guru
  2. Reframe through facts
  3. Make it safe to learn
  4. Make the problem concrete
  5. Leverage social proof
  6. Confound the immune defense response

Leadership Tasks / Styles

Traditional Approach to Change Positive Deviance Approach to Change
Leadership as Path Breaker

Primary ownership and momentum for change come from above.

Leadership as Inquiry
Leader facilitates search; community takes ownership of the quest for change.
Outside In

Experts identify and disseminate best practices.

Inside Out
Community identifies preexisting solutions and amplifies them.
Deficit Based

Leaders deconstruct common problems and recommend best-practice solutions. Implication: Why aren't you as good as your peers?".

Asset Based
Community leverages preexisting solutions practiced by those who succeed against the odds.
Logic Driven

Participants think into a new way of acting.

Learning Driven
Participants act into a new way of thinking.
Vulnerable to Transplant Rejection

Resistance arises from ideas imported or imposed by outsiders.

Open to Self-Replication
Latent wisdom is tapped within a community to circumvent the social system's reaction.
Flows from Problem Solving to Solution Identification

Best practices are applied to problems defined within the context of existing parameters.

Flows from Solution Identification to Problem Solving
Solution space is expanded through the discovery of new parameters.
Focused on the Protagonists

Engages stakeholders who would be conventionally associated with the problem.

Focused on the Enlarging the Network
Identifies stakeholders beyond those directly involved in the problem.

Positive Deviance Initiative

The Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI) was formed in 2001 under the direction of Jerry Sternin. Located at Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the PDI is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation. The objectives of the PDI are to document and share information on current global positive deviance (PD) projects, to explore new PD applications, and to expand the cadre of PD practitioners and trainers.