The Power of Positive Deviance

New York Journal of Books Review

The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems

by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin & Monique Sternin

(Harvard Business Press, June 16, 2010)


After an economic meltdown, a decade of war in the Middle East, and a gnawing sense of vulnerability, we face a fork in the road of our national journey: Are our institutions — be they government, corporate, religious, or nonprofit — still serving us well and, if not, how should they change?


This is more than red-state blue-state, liberal-versus-conservative cable TV fodder. Rather, it reflects a nagging ambivalence toward academia, bureaucrats, and leaders who claim to have the "big" ideas, administer giant programs, and play the politics that too many have become hopeless.


Such doubts ultimately derive from the way we address problems at all levels across society. Will a 2,500-page healthcare bill really address the costs and gaps of medical treatment for three-hundred million Americans? Can the Earth’s climate be corrected with a regime that penalizes energy usage? Can a religion regain trust in the wake of priestly scandal?


More to the point, who is empowered to create such solutions?


This last question lies at the heart of The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. The business professor and consultant Richard Pascale, along with the husband-wife team of Jerry and Monique Sternin, present a problem-solving approach that emphasizes three "Cs" — community, commitment and communication — to resolve seemingly intractable issues.


Contrast that with our current governance model, which historian Walter Russell Mead calls a gnostocracy — the rule of experts. In a perfect gnostocracy, the smartest, best-educated people make all the decisions for the rest of us. Hence, William F. Buckley’s oft-stated preference to be ruled by the first three-hundred names in the Cambridge telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.


In their way, Pascale and the Sternins open that phonebook and seek those who have found their own solutions — a bottoms-up approach in synch with our Toquevillian bloodlines.


Also, by flipping problem perceptions on their head — addressing not "why are Vietnamese babies malnourished?" but rather "why are some of the babies at optimal weight?" — solution seekers can cut to the chase. The key is to focus on those local outliers, the "positive deviants," who have already figured out the solution and identify the secrets of their success. As important, communities are then mobilized based on their norms and culture to adopt the same habits and behaviors.


Easier said than done, as the authors are the first to admit. Whether it is in the corridors of Merck or the houses of Egyptian villages, nobody likes change imposed from the outside regardless of its viability. As formidable an obstacle: Leaders hate to give up power. Thus, much of The Power of Positive Deviance is devoted to how a community must work to teach and change itself — and that means each individual having a stake in a successful outcome.


At first glance, Pascale and the Sternins may seem to be late passengers on the "Gladwell-Freakanomics" bandwagon — the literature of individual genius and quirky economics. Far from it. Their book is closer in spirit to James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and Glenn Harlan Reynolds’s An Army of Davids, but it takes a deeper dive with impressive results. The authors’ case studies, though sometimes related in a breathless tone (particularly in the chapter on curbing the practice of female circumcision in Egypt), are candid about the power and limitations of their method.


But the successes they document are striking: a 30–50 percent reduction in childhood malnutrition in communities across forty-one countries; a significant prevention of antibiotic resistant bacteria in three U.S. hospitals; and a 30-percent decrease in girl trafficking in poor villages in East Java. Even better, Pascale and the Sternins present their methodology in a way any layperson can understand.


For a society fraught with flawed adversarial (lawsuits, politics, media) and top-down (executive, regulatory, legislative) approaches to systemic challenges, The Power of Positive Deviance deserves more than a cursory glance — it should be required reading for the powers that be. How about a copy delivered to the in-box of every Congressman and cabinet secretary for starters?


OVO Views: Conversations about Innovation


What I like about The Power of Positive Deviance is that it stipulates that unlikely people solve tough problems. I was reminded of this recently when we learned that one of the first winners of an Innocentive challenge was a person who worked out a solution in his garage. Often the best innovators are "deviants" who don't fit comfortably in the corporate world but their very nature, perspectives and insights are what is missing to solve important, intractable problems.

Another lesson and one of my favorite statements in the book is: "It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting". From an innovation point of view, experimenting constantly and innovating regularly leads to new strategies and new processes, when "top down" strategic direction often fails.


REVIEWS - "simple and complex", "revolutionary", "extraordinary", "riveting"


First Friday Book Synopsis - "brilliant"


Robert Morris - "... the PD approachis almost always the best to take", "a brilliant achievement", "could perhaps save the human race"


BusinessWeek - "a curious philosophy"





"In trying to tackle ‘intractable' challenges, we often import fixes from outside the target group or community and, with the best of intentions, fail. Surprisingly, the wisdom often lies within: the diversity within any group hides ingenious solutions awaiting the right process and leadership to uncover them. The Power of Positive Deviance shows the way to discover, implement, and scale hidden innovations that work because they are already consonant with the culture."


Ronald Heifetz, Harvard Kennedy School and Cambridge Leadership Associates


"Complexity, scarcity, and culture are now code words for why the state of the world is not improving faster. The Power of Positive Deviance breaks those codes and shows in a variety of contexts how social entrepreneurs can achieve concrete results today."


Lee Howell, Managing Director, Head of Programming, World Economic Forum

"Vividly told by pioneers of positive deviance (PD), these stories from around the world and across all sectors demonstrate the power of the people to solve intractable problems. Cheap, sustainable, indigenous, developed slowly in order to deliver quickly, PD solutions derive from insight distributed throughout a community, unleashed with the right questions. Read this and see: PD is an idea whose time has come."


Barbara Waugh, PhD, Director (retired), Hewlett-Packard

"This is a phenomenal book about how radical reform actually occurs. Written in simple, moving language, it deepens our thinking about the power of community and local wisdom. The Power of Positive Deviance single-handedly replaces your entire bookshelf on change management. With great stories and useful methodology, it is required reading for anyone wanting to make a difference in the world."



Peter Block, author of The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods and Community: The Structure of Belonging

"This book speaks to all who seek creative solutions in the face of seemingly intractable problems. The authors combine inspiring accounts of bringing about such solutions—from overcoming childhood malnutrition in poor villages to cutting back on devastating hospital infections—with indispensable practical advice for breaching entrenched barriers to change."


Sissela Bok, author of Lying and Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science

"It is a truism that some of the most impactful ideas are the most simple—that a new way of looking at things can change the world. Positive deviance is such an idea. People on the front lines have often already found creative solutions. The job of leadership then becomes identifying these people and spreading their wisdom."


Dr. Charles MacCormack, President, Save the Children

"If you've ever run from a change because it felt too overwhelming, this book will bring you hope. No one has catalyzed more change, on more issues, in more places in the world, than Jerry and Monique Sternin. Learn the power of positive deviance—and take hope."


Chip Heath, coauthor of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

The Power of Positive Deviance