The Sternins (Jerry is now deceased) developed the concept of positive deviance in the early 1990s, when they were both at Tufts, and spent their lives clarifying how people passionate about large-scale, sustainable social change might put it to work.
Practitioners of positive deviance look for existing solutions to massive social problems – solutions that are already in use by people (“positive deviants”) affected by the very problem to be addressed. Because these solutions have been devised and put to use by ordinary people with access to no special resources, they are demonstrably sustainable.
In this TEDx talk in October 2013, Monique Sternin uttered these thrilling words (in paraphrase): “Solutions to intractable problems already exist, and they have been devised by the least likely to succeed: ordinary people, without special resources.”
A hallmark of the positive deviance approach is that it is entirely community-driven. Change agents do not come from outside, on high, to deliver solutions. PD methodology maximizes both sustainability and human dignity by relying on local knowledge to uncover local solutions. One of the most compelling articulations of this principle is, “Don’t do anything about me without me.”
As outlined in the Basic Field Guide to the Positive Deviance Approach, PD methodology consists of five basic steps, all carried out and owned by members of the community:
1. Define the problem, current perceived causes, challenges and constraints, common practices, and desired outcomes.
2. Determine the presence of PD individuals or groups.
3. Discover uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies through inquiry and observation.
4. Design activities to allow community members to practice the discovered behaviors.
5. Monitor and evaluate the resulting project or initiative which further fuels change by documenting and sharing improvements as they occur, and help the community discern the effectiveness of the initiative.
The Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI) provides training, technical assistance, meetings, and an on-line community of people implementing the positive deviance approach. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tina Rosenberg has written recently about Positive Deviance in the New York Times, providing some well-deserved attention that might help PDI gain traction.
Are you using PDI methodology yourself? Are you intrigued about how your practice might change if you did? I am eager to hear your thoughts on the matter!