Training Magazine Events: Are You a Positive Deviant?

Positive deviants are rule breakers, or at least rule benders, who are always “checking the edges” and see holes rather than the net.

By Jane Bozarth

In every group there are a minority of people who find better solutions to the challenges at hand…even though they have access to exactly the same resources as the rest of the group, their uncommon practices or behaviors allow them to flourish.”—Jerry Sternin

You know one: the one manager of 30 in the building who never misses deadlines and consistently shows good results while retaining great staff. The one teacher who’s successful with technology integration, while 50 others don’t “have time.” The one state government classroom trainer of 500 who instead of saying, “We can’t do e-learning because it’s too expensive,” asked, “How can we do e-learning without much money?” And then she turned that into a Master’s thesis and book and interesting career. Oh, wait. That’s me.

The idea of positive deviance emerged from a Save the Children initiative in Vietnam when Jerry and Marilyn Sternin were sent to save starving children. In one village, instead of asking, “Why are 64 percent of the children malnourished?” the Sternins wondered, “With all resources being equal, why are 36 percent of the children not malnourished?” They found mothers who fed more frequent meals, using foods others weren’t giving children, who washed the children’s hands before meals, and who were willing to buck opinions of the village elders. They also found that using these community members as on-site educators helped spur adoption by other mothers. Result: an 85 percent drop in malnutrition, and the change was sustained. It’s the kind of learning transfer we dream of in our industry.

There are plenty of positive deviants among us, most operating on a somewhat smaller scale. Traits they share:

  • They are rule breakers, or at least rule benders, who are always “checking the edges” and see holes rather than the net.
  • They are passionate about what they do, which supports them as they work against social convention.
  • They look for what is going right.
  • They look at resources they do have and figure out where to get more.
  • They ask the right questions, flipping the usual ones on their heads: “Why is the staph infection rate so low on Ward 4?”

Adopting the positive deviance approach could do a lot toward both making our work easier and helping us get the right solutions in place. “Why are sales in Region 4 so much higher than everywhere else?” might point us in the direction that “we need to fix the problems in Zone 7” won’t.

So embrace your inner positive deviant. Look for assets. Look for successes. Look for those who, all else being equal, are able to get things done. What do they do? How? And what can you take from them to become more of a positive deviant yourself? Google “positive deviance” to start. Read up on the Positive Deviance Initiative, seek some of Jerry Sternin’s work, and check out Atul Gawande’s “Better.” And join me in Chicago September
17-19 for Training’s Online Learning Conference, where I’ll be hosting the kickoff event, a fun evening at Buddy Guy’s Legends Club with rapid-fire presentations from some of Learning & Development’s favorite positive deviants.

Jane Bozarth is e-learning coordinator for the state of North Carolina and the author of several books, including “eLearning Solutions on a Shoestring” and “Social Media for Trainers.” She is a frequent presenter at Trainingmagazine events and has been a longtime Trainingmagazine contributor.

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