The role of positive deviants in organisations

(I summarised the results of the discussion mentioned below on the KM4Dev wiki: here).

Some members from KM4Dev are organizing a series of ‘focused conversations’ either about the community itself or about the field of ‘Knowledge management for development’. I volunteered for one of the latter. And I’d like to focus that conversation on the role of positive deviants in development organisations.

In any community, there are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers. These individuals are referred to as positive deviants.  Sternin, J., & Choo, R. (2000).

Fascinating! People that just manage to be smarter without following the same path as everyone else, and end up unearthing solutions that no one else saw?

Now the interesting thing for us/me is that positive deviants could very well be what would make a difference in getting a lot of knowledge work (i.e. conscious, structured but flexible approach to creating, sharing, applying, assessing knowledge through learning and action) accepted and practiced in development organisations.

How can we tap into the power of positive deviants to show us alternative paths? (credits - ExplorativeApproach)
How can we tap into the power of positive deviants to show us alternative paths? (credits – ExplorativeApproach)

Perhaps we need these positive deviants to get wider organisations to embrace learning, change, complexity, participation, empowerment, dialogue and a host of other things that we/I stand for in our organisations to make development and knowledge work more noble and effective.

So this raises a lot of questions about positive deviants vis-a-vis knowledge work in development organisations:

  • Have you noticed such ‘positive deviants’ in your organisation or other organisations you are familiar with?
  • What characterises them? How different might they be from the champions that are sometimes alluded to in knowledge work (or other) initiatives?
  • What kind of benefits do they bring to their organisations?
  • Are these benefits recognised / how accepted are these people in their organisation?
  • How could they be mobilised to highlight alternative paths?
  • Do they create a ‘knock-on effect’ to influence other members of their organisation to follow their path and if so how?
  • If positive deviance seems useful in practice, how to stimulate and amplify it (if at all possible) in organisations?

So, I’m curious to see what will come out of that focused conversation…

Want to read more on positive deviance? I found this presentation…

Related blog posts:


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. I like to relate PD to KM. It is already happening, maybe we just don’t see it. Be it embedded or tacit. What is important is how we can bring, make sense and replicate those PD related process, behaviours, patterns and learning for the benefit of the organisation.

    To me, all leaders, managers and those leading teams should be exposed to PD as the ecosystem we operate in is complex.

  2. Thank you both for your comments. I agree with you that positive deviants are not likely to linger in rigid organisations. Yet a lot of learning/KM folks are essentially positive deviants trying to find smarter ways to leverage the power of knowledge and learning to become more effective.
    The drawback of being a consultant is that you cannot shape the system from within quite as much…
    Interesting idea that champions are good at identifying positive deviants, I need to get my head around this and that could certainly be an interesting area to explore further to ensure positive deviants can thrive and help organisations.
    There is an important difference between positive deviants and subject matter experts in the sense that the former don’t need to be experts to show new ways – and experts in what field anyhow (organisations are made of many profiles/disciplines)? Typically lots of people that I would describe as positive deviants are rather ‘process people’, more than content experts. Alternatively, subject matter experts may not be positive deviants, they might continue along the trail that helped them become experts…
    Makes sense?

    Thanks again for the stimulating ideas!

  3. I can’t imagine PDs surviving long in organizations, unless they have a high tolerance for self flagellation. It is very difficult to be a positive deviant in a traditional top-down structure – maybe they become consultants?

  4. I think that positive deviants are a subset of champions. Champions are good at identifying positive deviants and helping to promote innovation.

    What is the different between a positive deviant and a subject matter expert?

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