Positive Deviation: how to massively improve anything

Standing Out

It’s hard to conceive of something that will improve anything it touches. Well I suppose practice will but as for a universal improvement tool, nah, I doubt it.

Well there is and it’s called positive deviance. It’s open to everybody, is highly effective in the workplace and is relatively easy to do.

To understand what positive deviance is we have to go back to the 1990s. During that time two American aid workers, Jerry and Monique Sternin, were working with Save The Children in Vietnam where 64% of children in rural areas suffered from malnutrition.

The Sternins noticed that there were exceptions to this. Further investigation revealed the mothers of better nourished children were collecting water shrimps and crabs during their work in the paddy fields and then feeding these to their children.

They also tended to include extra, albeit unusual, greens found in the fields and enforced more personal hygiene in their children, such as washing their hands before eating.

When this “deviant yet positive” behaviour was rolled out to other families, malnutrition rates fell by an amazing 85%.

So positive deviation is behaviour that’s not normal but yields better results than the norm.

Here’s how it works in business.

We have a natural tendency to identify things that are broken and fix them. Sales people not hitting targets; projects running late; low 360 appraisal scores etc. all attract our attention, and quite rightly so.

But this is only part of the story.

What about those who are consistently above target; habitually deliver ahead of deadline or always achieve higher appraisal scores? These are positive deviants (PDs) and could hold the key to massive performance improvements.

Your job is to expand your thinking beyond the “if it ain’t bust don’t fix it” space and into the “so why are they always so good?” zone.

“It’s not all about the red figures on a spreadsheet guys.”

You then need to figure out why the PD is consistently delivering better results and ask one simple question “could other people do this too?”

Sometimes they can’t because it’s down to the inherent experience or characteristics of the PD but in most cases this behaviour can be adopted by others.

Then all you need to do is distil out the deviant behaviour and arrange for it to be rolled out to the rest of the team (the hard bit).

Imagine if everybody performed as well as your best performer! Clearly, this is unlikely but even if it applies to only half or a third of the team, the improvement in results could be stratospheric.

So there you have it – after you’ve fixed the under achievements why not go back and spend some more time understanding the over-performers too.

Oh, one last thing. Another word for positive deviance is evolution and look how that worked out for EVERY LIVING THING ON THE PLANET!

I’d really love to get your comments on this one. Do you agree? Do you have experience of PD in practice? Please leave a contribution – much appreciated 🙂

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Posted in Blog, Efficiency & Effectiveness
2 comments on “Positive Deviation: how to massively improve anything
  1. Bernard Goodchild says:

    Hi Mike

    Thank you for forwarding these words to me. Surely this is the well-known sharing Best Practices that many of us have tried to promote all of the time when reviewing results and performances.

    As ever some individuals are positive about improving the performance of the whole team whist others do what you outline accept the average and not help but discipline the poor performers!

    Hope that this makes sense.

    Best Wishes


    • Mike Ames says:

      Thanks for you input Bernard. I agree best practice roll out is something many people talk about but because of time pressures few actually carry through. Shame really but a real competitive advantage for those who do.

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