Bright spots and positive deviance

In February's Fast Company there's a preview of the forthcoming book Switch: How to change things when change is hard, by the brothers Heath (Chip and Dan). I haven't read the full book as yet. It goes on sale on February 16, so I'm only going on what I've read in this article. My first reaction to the extract was that it sounded identical to theories of positive deviance. I was right in that when I searched my desktop I found the article by Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin that the Switch article had triggered in my mind. (Except that I'd forgotten the names of the authors of the article on positive deviance and only remembered the concept, while the Heaths mention the authors but not the article or the term 'positive deviance').

In May 2005 the Harvard Business Review published an article by Pascale and Sternin called Your Company's Secret Change Agents which opened with the remarks that:

SOME BUSINESS PROBLEMS – employees working at half their potential, endlessly escalating health care costs, conflicts between departments – never seem to get fixed, no matter how hard people try. But if you look closely, you'll find that the tyranny of averages always conceals sparkling exceptions to the rule. Somehow, a few isolated groups and individuals, operating with the same constraints and resources as everyone else, prevail against the odds. ….. We believe there is a better method, one that looks for indigenous sources of change. There are people in your company or group who are already doing things in a radically better way. The process we advocate seeks to bring the isolated success strategies of these "positive deviants" into the mainstream.

Looking further into my files I find I have the report from the Save the Children Fund, dated 1998, titled Designing a Community-Based Nutrition Program Using the Hearth Model and the Positive Deviance Approach – A Field Guide. The Guide was written by Monique Sternin, Jerry Sternin, and David Marsh with a foreword by Marian F. Zeitlin, at that time Visiting Professor, The Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy

In her foreword she answers the question "What is positive deviance?" saying that

Positive deviance in nutrition describes young children who grow and develop adequately in poor families and communities, where a high number children are malnourished and frequently ill.

They are positive deviant children, and they live in positive deviant families. These families have developed culturally appropriate positive deviant practices that enable them to succeed in nourishing and caring for their children in spite of poverty and an often high risk environment.

Additionally I have a very good PowerPoint slide deck titled "Positive Deviance Approach for Behavior and Social Change", funded through the Ford Foundation, Tufts University, that describes the methodology behind the Positive Deviance Approach

What I find both interesting and somewhat irritating is that it takes a language switch (and 12 years) to bring a concept, and a vivid example of it working, into the mainstream: the Fast Company Switch article is virtually a repeat of the positive deviance work but presented in a much livelier and more engaging style.

Given the visibility of the Heath's writings I am guessing that they will profit from switching the language of 'positive deviance' into the accessible language of 'bright spots'. (And I wish I'd thought of it). I've written a couple of times on the importance of language (Sticks and Carrots, and Plain English), and here we have the same phenomenon. In the clichéd phrase "It's not what you say it's the way that you say it" that makes something stick or not. If nothing else this would be a useful reminder to change agents – or do I mean bright spot fielders?

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