The Power of Positive Deviance
Secret Sauce



The Power of Positive Deviance is organized as a set of "vertical" narratives — stories of applications around the world. Each chapter concludes with "Reflections" that highlight "horizontal" themes which cut across the stories and reveal the essence of what makes the approach so successful. We call this the "Secret Sauce".



Adult learning that entails behavioral change almost always takes place in a social context. The existing social system must be unfrozen for new discoveries and behaviors to emerge.


Incorporation and dissemination of learning within a social system is a source of competitive advantage. The contrast between magpies and robins is instructive. Magpies are highly evolved social animals. Robins live comparatively isolated lives and vocalize primarily to demark territory.


The delivery of milk to the doorsteps of British homes in the late 19th century had the unintended consequence of providing a free lunch to a variety of animals that dined on the protein-rich liquid. Freeloading came to an abrupt end when aluminum caps were placed on the tops of milk bottles. A few "positive deviant" magpies and robins discovered that a well placed peck could pierce the cap. Among robins, this innovative strategy was confined to a few isolated individuals. In contrast, owing to the magpie’s evolved social system, discovery by a few spread among millions of birds in the British Isles within a few years.


The video underscores magpie intelligence. Having discovered an ingenious method for cracking nuts that are too hard to be pierced by the bird’s beak, dissemination of the "cross walk" method is gathering momentum.



An important amplifier of learning within a social context is "social proof". Simply stated, when someone just like me does something, I’m more likely to try it myself. This YouTube clip from a Canadian rock concert makes the point.



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The Standard Model is short hand for the top down, command and control approach that prevails in most governments, churches, companies, and NGOs. It works well for technical problems, where known knowns and known unknowns exist and solutions can be derived from a pre-existing repertoire. Unfortunately, this approach is often misapplied to adaptive problems embedded in a complex social system and which require behavioral change.


This award winning commercial for Midas all-weather tires is an apt metaphor for the efficacy of the Standard Model when mis-applied to adaptive challenges. The vehicle in front can be construed as symbolic of a community’s forward progress in achieving transformation change. The vehicle in the rear can be interpreted as the efforts of those in authority to overtake stalled initiatives in the ranks and exercise proactive influence.



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The Challenge of Scaling How do we achieve appropriate levels of replication of Positive Deviance discoveries while allowing for necessary variation in circumstances and individual differences? This video speaks for itself.



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