Positive deviants/ce in knowledge management for development

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Original Message



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This is the short summary that Ewen prepared based on inputs provided:

  • It's more useful to talk about 'positive deviance' (the practices) rather than 'positive deviants' (the people), because it all depends on the context: a person could be deviant in a context and totally not in another one) and the perception of the people affects the potential of uptake of these practices – as for the people if they are followed by too many others they are arguably not deviant any longer. And who calls people ‘deviants’ in the first place?
  • Deviant practices need individuals that are strong but flexible at the same time and that have a temper to ensure their personal beliefs and values make it to collective practices.
  • Deviance itself is more positive coming from communities / collectives of individuals, whether they are conscious of their deviant practices or not. It is through communities that we negotiate understanding of change (and e.g. comparison of practices) and reinforce it;
  • Positive deviance practices find away in relation with the balance between a) organizational practices/processes/methods to be effective and b) the need to keep a space for innovation and creativity. That balance is affected by the acceptance/tolerance for risk and ambiguity, failure etc.
  • Bringing diversity in the organizational mix is important, i.e. people, networks and events that bring new people, environments etc. to the fore to create diversity, in peer assists and to elicit innovation.
  • Positive deviance can be very powerful to leverage innovation, as common practice leads to quick wins but breakthroughs happen with uncommon practices...

Detailed Description

Inputs, in slightly more details, cover the following:

  • Eva Schiffer contends that positive deviants are useful for innovation to happen, notably by bringing in diverse networks, which make innovation more likely to happen. “The positive deviant in this organization would be someone who is friends with people in the private sector, establishes collaborations with a ministry of agriculture, goes to conferences of mobile technology developers and talks about his work with the person sitting next to him on the plane”. They can think up totally new approaches and get them implemented with partners, also adapting solutions from another context. Eva suggests a few ways for organisations to make use of positive deviants: a) Hire people with a non-typical profile (not just serving the core purpose of the organisation), b) Ensure that they have a diverse network, c) Encourage mixing and mingling among staff and d) Encourage attending events that attract a new audience or broad mix of people
  • Geoff Parcell prefers talking about

Talk about positive deviance (the practice) rather than positive deviants (the people). Positive deviance is interesting in the context of peer assists (for having more diversity), looking at common and uncommon practices. Sometimes the former is the best solution, sometimes the latter. Common principles and common sense don’t imply common practice but comparing practices reveal what’s common or not and sometimes positive deviance practices are not consciously perceived as such. Quick wins come from common practice, breakthroughs from uncommon ones.

  • Jaap Pels argues that positive deviants that have too many followers are not deviants any more and that the world is changed by unreasonable people (perhaps the positive deviants?). In global development, we operate in an environment that is generally averse to diversion, deviance, risk, unknown. Companies such as Google however encourage deviance by offering a free day per week for employees to work on their own projects. Jaap argues that NGOs, CBOs etc. when they start might be all about positive deviance but progressively deviance gets aligned with institutionalisation, formalisation etc. Perhaps the way forward is 'pushing the limits' and "that means constantly showing others how to use technology / techniques (like KS, open space etc), putting fingers on money flows, removing veils, have a 'just do it' mentality etc. A positive deviant should not aim to have a role."
  • Patrick Lambe does not like to see positive deviants inevitably linked to champions, as it raises the assumption that change is driven by individual heroes. From Sternin’s book, it seems that many positive deviance practices were under the radar and the value of PD was to give visibility to these practices. Patrick asks whether it isn’t more beneficial that people are not aware of their deviant practices and that deviance is produced by communities rather than individuals? Champions are just one manifestation of this.
  • Sarah Cummings explains that in an article by Laxmi Pant et al., one dimension of the chaos of international development is that of positive deviants who “act out against the structures and ‘rules of the game’ in knowledge creation, application and regeneration”. They are powerful agents of change, bridging gaps between expert and local Knowledge. Sarah further argues that although change has to start with individual practice, communities are crucial to negotiate understanding of change and to reinforce it.
  • Eva Schiffer comes back to mentoin that positive deviance in one community could be seen as completely mainstream in another, despite being exactly the same idea/practice. Eva suggests that if one is struggling as a positive deviant in one community, it might be good to find a community of like-minded people that will act as a support group.
  • Cathy Farnsworth talks of 'tempered radicals (Meyerson and Scully 1995), i.e. people that need to be strong and flexible and to have a temper. By combining these they create change by narrowing the gap between personal and organisational values – they “typically experience the values and beliefs of the organization or profession within which they work as a violation of the integrity and authenticity of their personal values and beliefs”.
  • Riff Fullan reflects on the fact that “the perception of others in that person’s immediate environment is a very important factor”. Someone considered an innovator has the potential of influencing practices a lot more than someone regarded otherwise. Riff also asks: how does positive deviance grow? Does it follow a viral path by growing slowly and then rapidly spreading or by getting attention from decision-makers? In the latter parth, in a context where failure is not tolerated, innovation is less likely. Riff thinks that this discussion has a lot to do with “balancing well-defined structures, processes and methods with maximizing opportunities for creativity and deviance”.
  • Laxmi Pant closes the conversation by pondering: "Who calls deviants 'deviants'?" Do they need a protected space? Science is not value free and if we consider this, PDs are no longer PDs because they inject a lot of values into their environment.

Examples in Application


Recommended Resources

smallholder agriculture. Knowledge Management for Development Journal 5(2): 160-172 (http://www.km4dev.org/group/km4djournal/forum/topics/author-copy-the-new-enlightenment-a-potential-objective-for-the)