‘If... our premise is that the community already has the answers, the task becomes one of facilitating self discovery. Seemingly slow starts acquire astonishing velocity once a community takes ownership of its own problem and discovers its own proven remedy.’
Positive deviance (PD) is an approach that ‘upends conventional wisdom’, suggesting that we don’t need to look to external experts to solve apparently intractable problems, but to identify individuals in the community – positive deviants – who have already found their own locally appropriate solution.
The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, by Richard Pascale, Jerry and Monique Sternin (see website for more information) tells the fascinating story of how this approach has been used on projects as diverse as childhood malnutrition in Vietnam to reducing MRSA in American hospitals.
We have recently been working alongside a third sector health organisation supporting their bid for funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s A Better Start programme which ‘aims to deliver a step change in preventative approaches in pregnancy and the first three years of life to improve the life chances of babies and young children’.
As we worked on this we became interested in how the learning from positive deviance projects might help shape new community based approaches to improving outcomes for the 0-3s.
Positive Deviance is an approach, not a replicable programme: it is intimately rooted in its context. It is not an approach to use where there is the possibility of a technical fix – it is for helping to resolve adaptive problems, characterised by social complexity and requiring behavioural change.
The positive deviance story is told as one of learning and discovery – learning from reflection on the successes and failures of real life projects. Much of this learning seems, to us, to be particularly pertinent to the A Better Start programme.
PD projects are bottom up, not top down – ‘tapping the distributed intelligence of the community to discover its own latent wisdom’. They require that the community defines its own problems and identifies its own solutions. Only through this will the community take ownership and develop its own strategies for change.
PD projects work on the principle of ‘acting into a new way of thinking’, they rely on the social learning of people coming together to discover and share new approaches and solutions through active engagement – through living out new ways of doing things, with families, friends and neighbours,.
They are rooted in their local context, or ecology - no two solutions will be the same: we can learn from the principles of how something has been done, but can’t simply replicate the solution. This has real importance for the concept of ‘scaling’ or ‘best practice roll out’. With PD you can scale ‘broad’ – communities can use their new found collective learning skills to solve other problems – but not ‘wide’ - the solutions cannot be simply applied in other communities. This is a major challenge to much current thinking around ‘evidence based’ programmes delivered with ‘fidelity’.
PD solutions are often characterised by apparently small changes – ‘incremental in a moment of time’ – which become much more profound – ‘radical over time’. This is described in the book as nature’s way – looking at system change as analogous to evolutionary adaptation over time.
All of this has major implications for the role of professionals, practitioners and leaders in initiating, shaping and developing projects in the community, and how communities are engaged with this process – shifting
‘...our emphasis from teaching people what to do, to engaging them as pioneers in discovering how to do it.’
Much to think about – and much to be inspired and excited by.