posted 29 Sep 2010 in Volume 14 Issue 1
David Gurteen explains why a break from the norm can encourage new ways of thinking and make a real difference in change management
I have just come across a knowledge management (KM) tool that I had not heard of before, despite it being around for ten years or more.
I have not read about it in any KM book or blog, or heard it talked about it in a conference. But it is one of the most powerful, exciting tools I have come across. It comes from the international development world and is called ‘positive deviance’ (PD).
PD is an approach to behavioural and social change based on the observation that in every community there are individuals or groups (so-called positive deviants) whose behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers even though they have access to the same resources and face similar challenges.
PD has been used to address many diverse issues in the international development and health sectors. It was first applied by Jerry and Monique Sternin, through their work with Save the Children in
At the start of the pilot over half of the children in the pilot villages were malnourished.Via a PD inquiry, the villagers found poor parents in the community that had well-nourished children. They discovered that these families were feeding their children foods that other villagers considered inappropriate; they washed their children’s hands before meals, and actively fed them three to four times a day instead of the typical two meals a day.
It was these simple ‘deviant behaviours’ that made the difference. But instead of telling parents what to do differently, they helped the villagers design a programme to act themselves into a new way of thinking. To attend a feeding session, parents were required to bring one of the newly identified foods. They brought their children and, while sharing meals, learned to cook the new foods.
At the end of the two-year pilot, malnutrition fell by 85 per cent – an amazing outcome! The villagers were helped to discover this for themselves. No experts were involved and no extra resources needed.
The PD approach is best suited to problems that require behaviour and social change. It is based on the following principles:
Communities already have the solutions to the problems they face and are the best people to solve them;
Communities have the people and the ability to self-organise to respond effectively to their common problems;
Know-how is not concentrated in the leadership of a community or in external experts but is distributed throughout the community;
The PD approach enables communities to discover sustainable responses to given problems because the demonstrably successful but not widely adopted behaviours are already practiced in the community; and
It is easier to change behaviour by practising it rather than being taught about it. ‘It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting’.
You can learn more on PD from the website, www.positivedeviance.org, or from the book The Power of Positive Deviance by Richard, Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin.
PD has been applied in the private sector but so far with nowhere near the success as in international development and health. There seems to me to be a number of reasons for this. But the main one is that the approach is totally facilitative. The community not only identifies the problem they wish to tackle but are also responsible for the inquiry that takes place, and the development and execution of the solution.
This is not how things normally work in business organisations. We are still caught up in the paradigms of ‘telling people what to do’ and ‘doing things to people’ rather than helping them to figure it all out for themselves.
PD is a very powerful tool. Expect to hear a lot more about it.
David Gurteen is founder of Gurteen Knowledge and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial board. He can be contacted via his website at www.gurteen.com