Positive Deviance: Learning from, and creating, exceptional performance

This blog article has an accompanying article on positive culture, and an accompanying case study on culture change

What is positive deviance and why is it a good thing?

Positive Deviance is an exciting methodology emerging from an understanding of organisations as complex adaptive systems. It helps organisations learn from those who manage to achieve better than normal outcomes from within the same resource constraints as their colleagues.

It is one of Kim Cameron’s distinguishing features for flourishing organizations: they both learn from and create positive deviance. Flourishing organizations are interested in exceptionally good performance and they learn from it. Some of the earliest examples of how learning from positive deviance can make a real difference comes from community work.


For example... 

For instance an early example of positive deviance was in a poor Vietnamese community. In this community there were many starving children yet some families were doing better than others in feeding their children. A positive deviance investigation by the villagers themselves revealed that the more successful families were taking shrimps and crabs from the rice fields i.e. had realised an additional source of protein. Some others were spreading their rice ration out over 24 hours, which is better for young children. These were things that theoretically everyone could do but not everyone did. These are positive deviance strategies. Of course there were also other factors such a having a rich relative who sent supplies. However these strategies are not available to others and so are known as true but useless (TBU) strategies. A key factor for the success of the intervention (i.e. achieving behaviour change) was they got the villagers themselves to do the investigation.

Positive Deviance investigations are being used very successfully to reduce super-bug infection rates in some hospitals. 

It is a very effective way of ‘growing’ a better culture. By recognising that small variations in performance always exist and by focussing on and amplifying the variations in a positive direction the whole organization can be encouraged to move in the direction of the best.

Appreciative inquiry as a methodology works on the same principle of identifying  positive deviance, learning from it, and increasing its presence in the organization.


When might investigating positive deviance be the way forward in an organisation?

With thanks to Lisa Kimball from Plexus


  • There is some existing deviance e.g. some people are doing better than others in a similar situation (performance variation across team or division)
  • It’s a really intractable problem
  • It involves behaviour change
  • Everyone knows what to do, they are just not doing it
  • The situation is bathed in data. It really helps if the groups can keep track of the changes they are making and their impact
  • There is top leadership support. This means top leadership support the process through releasing resource, being responsive to early efforts and initiatives, and tracking, recording and amplifying results.


How to do positive deviance

  1. Ask about success
  2. Compare best to near best to tease out small differences that make a difference
  3. Encourage peer to peer inquiry (and analysis) into success
  4. Identify strategies for success (discounting TBU factors)
  5. Support with behaviour change strategies
  6. Support with top leadership resources: interest, budget, encouragement, action


This blog article has an accompanying article on positive culture, and an accompanying case study on culture change

More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.


Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with Leadership and Culture change.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715