Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2009

  • The Power of Positive Deviance

    Friday 11th September 2009 - 2:00pm - 3:00pm

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  • Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2009

    The Power of Positive Deviance
    Dalian, People’s Republic of China 10-12 September

    In most “impossible” situations, a few people have discovered successful practices and have outperformed others with exactly the same resources. This session examined how these “positive deviants” have been leveraged to impact the lives of millions in companies and countries.

    Key Points

    • Positive deviance uses extreme solutions to solve seemingly impossible situations.
    • Its results come about from the practice of turning situations upside down, and altering practices in a manner previously unexpected – ultimately changing the established body of knowledge.
    • Positive deviance demonstrates success against all odds.
    • Private sector application of positive deviance remains largely unsuccessful, though worthy of future research.


    Celebrated as one of the “Big Ideas of the Year” by The New York Times in 2008, positive deviance stems from a simple idea – that within every “impossible” situation, a few people succeed against all odds. To extrapolate, the theory states that in every community there are certain individuals whose uncommon practices enable them to find better solutions to problems than their neighbours or colleagues with access to the same resources. This success might, therefore, be used to solve some more scaleable issues within a community.

    As one example, a farmer living in a Brazilian tidal area spent years watching water inundate her ground soil without much hope of growing produce. By trying to grow local cassava and succeeding despite the changes in soil humidity, the farmer was able to expand her crop to chilli plants and lemon trees, thus improving her lifestyle and income.

    In the Sahel desert in Niger, satellite photos showed that a dry area became green over a period of 30 years. In the 1970s, Ibrahim, a local farmer, broke with the customary activity of cutting down young trees for immediate use, and instead let them grow. Within a few years, a canopy developed offering shade, roots prevented tides in the rainy season, seeds provided animal feed and fruit from the trees provided additional income for Ibrahim, and an economic boost for the area.

    These two historical examples demonstrate how some individuals succeed with the same resources as their neighbours and against all odds. Positive deviance is not always an obvious phenomenon to behold. A further example describes the situation of Azzudin, a smuggler who regularly transported hay on the backs of donkeys through a mountain border. Customs inspectors could never work out what Azzudin was smuggling. Years into their retirement, Azzudin and the customs officer met again. The officer asked Azzudin what he had been smuggling all those years, to which he responded he had been smuggling donkeys – demonstrating invisibility in plain sight.


    The practice of positive deviance developed in the 1990s, when Save the Children was granted a working visa in Vietnam to address the country’s infant malnutrition problem. On observing the prevalence of malnourished children in a number of poor communities, it was noticed that some children did not suffer malnutrition, although the resources were similar. Discussions with parents revealed that many counter-conventional habits had been adopted, including feeding the children shrimps, crabs and weeds picked directly in the rice fields. Within weeks through discussions and workshops, a decline in malnutrition was observed at the community level.

    The positive deviance approach has been applied in other social realms, including investigating the circumcision of women in Egypt, sex trafficking in Indonesia, school retention in Argentina, infant mortality in Pakistan and girl soldiers in Uganda. In the developed world, it was used to study the MRSA bacteria, which kills close to 18,000 patients yearly in US hospitals.

    In all cases, the underlying notion is that knowledge initially influences attitudes, which in turn affect practices. Conversely, changing practices will in turn help to change attitudes, which ultimately changes our knowledge.

    Each example relates to the social realm. Positive deviance has been less successful in its application in the private sector. The open question is why this is the case. This might be because companies follow a top-down command and central approaches to all problems, rather than the self-organized, bottom-up approach that cities and communities automatically adopt. From the discussion, it appears the positive deviance approach could nevertheless be considered an interesting business strategy, worthy of further investigation.


    Other Key Takeaway

    Positive deviance might be considered as a last resort remedy, when no technical mechanism can be found to solve a problem.

    Briefing by
    Richard T. Pascale, Associate Fellow, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, United Kingdom



    This summary was prepared by Ciara Browne and Luke Clark. The views expressed are those of certain participants in the discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants or of the World Economic Forum.

    Copyright 2009 World Economic Forum
    No part of this material may be copied, photocopied or duplicated in any form by any means or redistributed without the prior written consent of the World Economic Forum.

    11 September 2009


    : business strategy, community work, knowledge sharing

    Recommended reading for: Meeting participants, public sector representatives



  • Richard T. Pascale Richard T. Pascale
    Associate Fellow, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

    Twenty years as faculty member, Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Consultant and Advi...