Positive Deviance (PD) is an idea which is based on the observed principle that in any community there are people who adopt unusual and successful approaches to problems that beset the whole community. These people are the ‘positive deviants.’

The PD approach was developed by Jerry and Monique Sternin with the charity Save the Children in Vietnam in the 1990s. They worked in villages where 64% of children were malnourished. They observed that some villagers, though no better off than their peers, had children who were well-nourished. These families had developed different behaviours and tactics including gathering foods which others disdained (e.g. sweet potato greens, snails and crabs).

It is known that rural communities often react badly to external experts telling them what to do. These people prefer to learn from each other. So Jerry and Monique developed a nutrition program based on the practices of the positive deviants. Participants were encouraged to come to classes with the new foods and were shown how to cook them by fellow villagers. After two years of the programme malnutrition had declined by 85%.

The key principles of the Positive Deviance approach are:

  • Communities already have the solutions. They are the best experts to solve their problems.
  • Communities self-organize and have the human resources and social assets to solve an agreed-upon problem.
  • Collective intelligence and know-how is not concentrated in the leadership of a community alone or in external experts but is distributed throughout the community.
  • Sustainability as the cornerstone of the approach.
  • It is easier to change behaviour by practicing it rather than knowing about it.

The PD approach has been applied in countries around the world.

In every large organisation there are some people who find more effective ways of getting things done.

The concept has spread to business

In every large organisation there are some people who find more effective ways of getting things done – often by bypassing rules and obstacles that impede the majority. The trick is to find these people and then use PD approaches to roll out the innovations. The process generally looks like this:

  1. Identify a common problem area in the business.
  2. Identify Positive Deviants – people who have found ways around the problem.
  3. Capture their methods and ideas.
  4. Design a programme to inform and motivate others to use the formulae of the PDs.
  5. Run a pilot workshop to test the programme.
  6. Roll out to the whole community and embed the new behaviours.

A core principle of PD is that the best way to change behaviour is by actions. ‘It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting’. So giving lectures and papers on how people should change is much less effective than finding a way to persuade them to try the change.

Every business has challenges and problems – including some chronic issues that the executive team has struggled to solve. But according to Monique Sternin, ‘the solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist – probably in plain sight.’ You just have to find the positive deviants.

By Paul Sloane

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation.


Pascale, Sternin, & Sternin. (2010) The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Harvard Business Press.

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