Positive deviants/ce in knowledge management for development

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Original Message

From: Ewen Le Borgne, posted on 2012/09/19

Hi everyone,

Following Nancy/Gauri's discussion and the recent Lucie/Charles discussion on 'moving away from knowledge products to knowledge sharing processes', here is a topic that is little explored but could have great potential in helping all of us develop an enabling environment for change, learning, critical reflection, sharing etc. This third episode in the new discussion series means that I will be collecting answers to the question for the next two weeks and then will provide an answer picking upon suggestions and ideas and will update the KM4Dev wiki.

The main question is basically the title of this email: What is (or could be) the role of positive deviants for knowledge work in development organisations? To find out what positive deviants are and to prepare this general question about them I have posted some ideas and other leading questions here (http://km4meu.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/the-role-of-positive-deviants-in-organisations/).

Many thanks for any ideas you have about this! Cheers,



All replies in full are available in the discussion page. Contributions received with thanks from:

Eva Schiffer
Geoff Parcell
Jaap Pels
Patrick Lambe
Sarah Cummings
Cathy Farnsworth
Riff Fullan
Laxmi Prasad Pant

Related Discussions


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 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.

Resource person's reflection

First of all, thank you for all your comments and resources they have been very useful. In addition to the summary which I proposed above, what I personally take out of this exchange is the relevance of focusing on practices rather than people, the need to balance out organizational imperatives with a space for creativity and innovation and the importance of moving away from (just) individual practices to focus on collective practices. I think positive deviance should be encouraged as much as possible in organisations, following Eva's suggestions and also with respect to the power of teams (and communities) to bridge organizations and individuals. What this tells me is that we might be well informed by:

  • Encouraging diversity of people and backgrounds;
  • Focusing on the edges of our networks and the influence of networks on those edges for our own conversations;
  • Working on diversity-induced deviance through various routes: surfacing uncommon practices by comparing practices (in peer assists and other conversations), working on the enabling environment (to bend it towards more openness for failure, risk and the unknown), and empowering teams and communities to try things out to encourage deviance that can ultimately be useful for entire organizations;
  • Avoiding to focus on positive deviants and reinforcing their role as deviants (it's like authorities picking up a cool term used by youths: it automatically becomes lame) and rather encouraging those spaces of collective reflection about practices and more to allow positive deviance to find its way.

Once again, many thanks for the great inputs!

Examples in Application


Recommended Resources

Full messages shared

Here is the full series of emails exchanged on this topic:

Eva Schiffer, 19 September 2012 Hi Ewen, Interesting question. Looking at it (as always) from the network perspective, there are two things we know about networks that matter here: • Networks (and organizations) mature toward homogeneity • Innovation happens most in heterogeneous networks. Conclusion: • Those who establish and maintain connections that add heterogeneity to the network substantially increase knowledge production and movement. What does that mean concretely? Let's take a public health development organization that, over the years, employs more and more people with public health background, forms partnerships with other public health organizations, be they donors or ministries of health or public health NGOs. All of them will know where the other is coming from, share goals etc. so they feel comfortable working with each other and be good at delivering standard established projects. 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. This person will be able to think up completely new approaches and get help in implementing them from a diverse set of partners. Also, he will take solutions that work in one context and adopt and adapt them for another.

Organizations who want this kind of innovation can look at a number of things when hiring and also when shaping the environment for their staff. The easiest is: Hire people from a diverse range of disciplines, not just the one that is your core mission. Also, in job interviews, find out whether the applicant has a diverse network. It doesn't make sense to just have people with broad mixed networks in an organization, because you need the core work to be done as well, but a number of network connectors can greatly improve the work the core workers can do. And finally, allow and encourage that your staff mixes and mingles and also goes to events that attract a new or broader audience.

I hope this helps and am curious to hear from others. Eva

Eva Schiffer Net-Map http://netmap.wordpress.com

Geoff Parcell, 20 September 2012 Hi Ewen

I generally look at positive deviance from the perspective of the peer assist process. We can look not only for common good practices but uncommon practices too. Only by sharing experiences do we know if our practice is uncommon. See my attached note.

Ewen Le Borgne, 22 September 2012

Hello all,

I'm not supposed to answer (yet) but just wanted to thank you for the great comments so far. On the blog 2 other comments came up which I thought would be good to share here:

Anna Griffith on September 20, 2012 at 7:09 pm said:Edit 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?

svriesendorp on September 21, 2012 at 10:08 pm said:Edit 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?

Keep it up! The conversation is open until Wednesday the week after next. Cheers,


Jaap Pels, 21 September 2012

Hi Ewen,

Prelude I consider myself deviant (but then, who is not deviant); positively intended but not always understood as such or 'positive' is a matter of point of view. The problem goes back to the first marathon; the messenger was killed. Also, being labeled as positive deviant has the risk in it that a community of followers will emerge and I do not want followers; with too much followers one is not deviant anymore :-) No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Albert Einstein Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins130982.html#mHKFy604hyAI8W0K.99 A reasonable man adapt himself to the world; it takes an un-reasonable (pos. dev?) to change it OR Reasonable men adapt to the world around them; unreasonable men make the world adapt to them. The world is changed by unreasonable men. Edwin Louis Cole Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/unreasonable.html#qQd8x1x6qUM35S01.99

Intermezzo This world is build around risk aversion (actually societies are passing on the mortgage to the next generation(s)). Dutch people insure themselves like crazy (as do the Swiss :-). Our log-frames have columns for 'Risk' and 'Mitigation' and not 'Serendipity'. Development is framed in time (projects) and money (budget) and deviation is to be avoided at all costs. Most management and politics is not about making (informed) decisions but about confirming the 'road followed' is 'the road to follow' (and the power balance is saved). Most development is about piecemeal application of technology (next to getting rid of dictators and oppression). As from Columbus (and before him Chinese / Indies) humans traveled the earth and now we are almost finished with global digital access. Google understands shaping circumstances; they hope for positive change / ideas etc by offering a 'deviant office day' when staff can 'work on whatever they want'. Sometimes I think start-ups (as any CBO ./ NGO is in the beginning) are a collective of positive deviants and when institutionalized, regulated, formalised and producing flag ship branded publications actually all deviations are aligned; einordnen (German word).

Finale So, your question: role of positive deviants (PDs) for knowledge work in development organisations? Well, how about 'pushing the limits' and reading the above 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 etc. You understand that PDs (no good abbr. in French!) will be dismissed from organisational trenches some times and even moved / temporarily expelled to organisational dungeons. Thus, a 'role', speaking for myself it is a constant struggle / search; a PD must not have the ambition to have a role! It is like in sports; if you label the flow it is gone.

Musing, Jaap

Patrick Lambe, 24 September 2012

I've always had a problem with the automatic association between positive deviants and visible champions. There's a bit of ideology coming through here I think - the idea of change being driven by individuals as heroes/heroines.

One of the interesting features of the cases in the Pascale/Sternin/Sternin book is that many of the positive deviation practices uncovered were formerly under the radar - and the value of the PD process was in giving visibility to these practices.

Isn't the whole point that many positive deviants are not aware of the value of their practices? That communities, not individuals produce deviations (both positive and negative), that communities provide the energy to surface and propagate deviations? That champions are one manifestation of this, and not the only manifestation?


Patrick Lambe Partner Tel: +65 62210383

Sarah Cummings, 24 September 2012 Dear All

I've been following this discussion on positive deviants with interest and there are a few of points I'd like to add to the discussion.

In the first place, I'd like to refer to an article by Laxmi Pant and Helen Odame which was published in the KM4D Journal in 2009 on 'The power of positive deviants'. The thing I particularly like about this article is the link it makes between positive deviance and knowledge. They consider that (agricultural) knowledge is managed in highly contested environments where uncertainty characterises stakeholder interactions, and that one dimension of this disorder are so-called positive deviants who act out against the structures and ‘rules of the game’ in knowledge creation, application and regeneration. They argue that positive deviants as powerful agents of change are, for example, able to bridge the divides between expert and local knowledge systems. I've posted the author copy of this paper on the KM4Dev ning at:


At the time, this article had a big influence on me and led me to the conclusion that many members of KM4Dev (and IKM Emergent) are themselves positive deviants in the sense that they are change agents and champions for a new knowledge-related development practice.

This leads me to my second point. One questionable aspect of the idea of positive deviants is the positive aspect in the sense that one (wo)man's meat is another (wo)man's poison, and that positive is a very relative term. The ideology point made by Patrick. This led me (yet again) to Sebastiao Ferreira's article on KM4Dev as the New Enlightenment:


[This is the correct link to the author copy, really]

In this article, Sebastiao argues that:

In less than 10 years, KM4Dev has become a global network of development agents who share the idea that knowledge can contribute to the development of poor countries and groups in a disadvantaged situation. KM4Dev is already playing the role of a cognitive bridge for development agents worldwide, and the demand of methodologies and tools of development agents have shaped the flow of knowledge among the members of the net. KM4Dev plays that role with a high level of efficiency, providing reliable answers to development agents at a daily basis, almost in real time, and at very low costs.

Well, however you look at it, that's positive, don't you think?

One final point relating to the individual/community 'dichotomy' made by others. Personally, I do think individuals, as positive deviants, can make a difference as change agents and I could give quite a few examples. Also, experience with IKM Emergent led us to the conclusion that change has to start with your own, individual practice. However, no-one can do things on their own and like minded individuals, and communities like KM4Dev, are crucial because they are able to negotiate understandings of change and to reinforce it.

Sorry for running on...


Sarah Sarah Cummings Email: sarahcummingswork@gmail.com URL: http://knowledgeecologists.org

Eva Schiffer, 24 September 2012

Hi all, Interesting points about "you have to enjoy punishment to continue being a positive deviant" and "a lot of KM4Dev people are positive deviants at home". Which makes me think two things: • You can be a positive deviant in one community and absolutely mainstream in another - with the same ideas and practices. • If you feel like a positive deviant in your home organization and it gets painful, make sure you find a community of people where your ideas are more mainstream (your support group "positive deviants anonymous" :)) Cheers Eva

Cathy Farnsworth, 26 September 2012

A few years ago my colleagues and I tried to tackle these questions through picking up and developing the term ‘Tempered radicals’ (Meyerson and Scully, 1995) which implies that change agents need to be strong like steel, yet flexible like tempered steel and also need to have a temper. Tempered radicals create change in their organisations by narrowing the gap between their personal values, and the values of their organizations. 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. They pursue advancement within the organisation or profession at the same time as criticising the status quo and seeking to transform it. They seek ways to manage the resulting ambivalence and tensions in their position. We spoke to over 80 people who feel themselves to be in this situation over four years in the CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), the organic food and farming sectors, and natural resource management, questions like: What is your experience of ‘ambivalence and tension’? What approaches to change work? What approaches fail? What kind of characteristics do you need to have, as a person, to initiate radical change in particular situations? It was a fascinating exercise. If you want to read more, please see: ORGANISATIONS & PEOPLE, NOVEMBER 2007, VOL 14. NO 4. My Practice Is My Strategy—Values in Organisations. By CATHY ROZEL FARNWORTH, BARUN GURUNG AND JANICE JIGGINS

Riff Fullan, 28 September 2012

Hi Ewen, all,

I also find the positive deviance topic fascinating. I like the quote in your blog from Sternin and Choo, which talks about people being more effective than their peers with the same level of resources and similar constraints. By the way, I also liked your point Geoff, about focusing on behaviour with the use of the term ‘deviance’, instead of on the person (‘deviant’).

Anyway, if I think about the impact of a person doing more with similar resources, there are two aspects which stand out for me….first, the perception of others in that person’s immediate environment is a very important factor (if I recall correctly, the Sternins also raised this point from their work in Vietnam): if someone is not respected, or a lot of people are envious of that person already, then his/her practices may not receive much traction. On the other hand, if s/he is considered to be an innovator, or is otherwise held in high regard by members of his/her organisation or community, then the potential is much higher.

A second point of interest from my perspective is the aspect of ‘scale’: How can such innovative ways of thinking and doing propagate? In some cases, they could follow a viral path, perhaps growing slowly at first, and then rapidly spreading (maybe also similar to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift). In others – and here I’m thinking particularly of an organisational context – the receptivity of decision-makers and of organisational processes to change could be crucial. This point resonates a lot in my mind with the learning from failure thread. In a context where failure is something to be avoided at all costs, or at least not talked about, there is less support for innovative behaviour.

I know this doesn’t respond directly to your question, Ewen, but it reflects a bit our current preoccupation with how to support ongoing learning throughout our organisation. A big part of it has to do with balancing well-defined structures, processes and methods with maximizing opportunities for creativity and deviance.



Riff Fullan Team Leader Knowledge and Learning

Laxmi Prasad Pant, 2 October 2012

Hi everyone,

We wrote the positive deviant paper that Sarah was referring to a while ago. When I look back the case study presented in the paper in the pretext of the work I have been doing now I would like to refer to the value-free ideal of scientific communities/epistemic communities. This raises a series of questions: Who calls deviants a 'positive deviant' and why? How do positive deviants innovate? Do they need a protected space to bring about something called niche innovation? How do we mainstream positive deviancy and subsequent niche innovation to bring systems innovation?

I think while answering these questions, we may need to challenge the value-free ideal of science. Science is not value free. Science is well within the influence of social, cultural, ethical and economic values, not just cognitive values of epistemic communities. When we discard value-free ideal of science, the positive deviants presented in the paper can no longer qualify as deviants. They were indeed concerned about injecting non-epistemic values (e.g., social, cultural and ethical values) into agricultural science.

Best regards,