Posted on November 9, 2018

Harness the Power of Positive Deviance

It is a well-known fact that some of our greatest innovations come from those who swim against the current. These paradigm shifts have not only changed the course of history, whether it is Galileo’s declaration that the earth revolves around the sun or John Locke’s insistence that the right to rule comes directly from the governed, but they are often mocked, distrusted, or worse by their contemporaries based on how far they differ from the status quo. This concept is known as positive deviance.

With some effort, we can apply these principles in leading our organizations to take advantage of this immense resource. At the Online Systemic Leadership Summit, I conversed on this subject with Antonio Belgrave, a senior organizational development professional and Founder of Positive Deviant LTD. He summed up positive deviance quite simply as “one or two individuals, one of two teams that are able to get better results from their peers through doing things differently.”

The Weirdness Index

Positive deviance is all about looking for better outcomes as a result of doing something differently. For instance, if the marketing for a product is failing across the board except in one small region, that region represents a positive deviance. We should go to that area, find out what they’re doing differently from everyone else, and look to implement it at large.

The underlying concept here is what Mr. Belgrave terms “The Weirdness Index.” This is a spectrum that describes behaviors as they relate to norms; on one extreme of the spectrum is total conformity and on the other is wild defiance. He urges us to find the sweet spot at the mean: the people who are willing to take steps outside of what is considered normal in order to solve a problem or realize an advantage. Because of this, leaders should consult with “unusual suspects” to try and gain a wider perspective and harness these positive deviances.

Keeping Up in Today’s World

One of the biggest challenges that we confront as today’s leaders is staying nimble as technology rapidly progresses. Because of this, traditional solutions often cannot be applied to newly arisen problems; we can’t just rely on the same people to come up with the same solutions. However, we can look to positive deviance, which, as Mr. Belgrave explains, “gives us an opportunity, a chance to keep up because we’re looking for what’s working already in the system.” Although management and the organization as a whole has not yet adapted to a given change, perhaps some outlier has spontaneously arrived at a solution. If we can tap into that, we give ourselves an immense advantage.

Humility, Courage, and Curiosity

These are the three traits that leaders need to cultivate to optimize positive deviances. We need to stay humble in order to consider new ideas and to listen to people with differing outlooks and opinions. We need to have the courage to implement new strategies, to sometimes break with what is considered socially or culturally acceptable, and to empower individuals to be spontaneous and creative. As you know, fortune favors the bold. And, lastly, we need curiosity to find these deviations, to figure out how they work, and to experiment with ways of thinking outside the box.

Finding and Implementing Positive Deviance

I’m sure that you’re probably now wondering how we can start taking advantage of these positive deviances to start reaping the rewards. Luckily, Mr. Belgrave gave us a series of questions that we can use to this end. He calls them “discovery actions dialogues.”

First, we need to ask “how do we know when something is a problem? This leads us to ask who is impacted by this issue, how we know it’s a problem, and what the surrounding patterns of behavior are.

Second, we ask how we have already tried to confront this problem. With large, systemic problems especially, we need to dig deep for any examples of solutions to the problem. We need to scope out anything that’s working.

Third, we ask ourselves why we don’t always implement these solutions. What prevents us from taking these actions all of the time?

Fourth, we ask if we know anybody who is frequently able to solve this problem and overcome the barriers. What behaviors or practices made their success possible?

Fifth, we take action and ask, what needs to be done to make this happen? We work to implement these behaviors on a greater scale.

Sixth, we ask how we get individuals on board to implement this change. We need to tap into their willingness to help by soliciting their own thoughts and ideas, enabling them to put themselves into the task and thus make the work meaningful.

Seventh, our last question asks who else needs to be involved. As we mentioned before, we need to find those unusual suspects; we need to bring people with different ideas to the table.


As you know, systemic problems require systemic solutions. These complex, intricately connected problems cannot be solved by dissecting the whole and fixing one of the parts, but instead requires us to think globally about the entire system. The power of positive deviance is that it offers us a way to methodically yet organically approach these issues, whether they are immense or trivial.

The beautiful thing about positive deviance is that it itself is a product of the system. Somewhere in the organization, someone is willing to step outside what is comfortable and innovate—this may not be the project board, the project manager, or even the team leader. Like a living organism, the system naturally and spontaneously finds a way to deal with obstacles. It is our job as leaders to have the boldness to find, foster, and implement these positive deviances.

So, are you inspired to start looking for positive deviances in your organization? If you enjoyed this article, please comment below! Plus, if you ever have any questions about systemic leadership, if you want some help in implementing these changes in your organization, if you want to know more about the annual Systemic Leadership Summit, or even if you just want to discuss these ideas, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at