Positive deviance

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Positive deviance (PD), a behavioural and social change approach, involves learning from those who find unique and successful solutions to problems despite facing the same challenges, constraints and resource deprivation as others.

Through the study of these "positive deviants", who employ uncommon but successful behaviours and strategies, the PD approach suggests that innovative solutions to challenges may be identified and refined from their outlying behaviour.

Since its inception in nutrition research in the 1970s, the PD approach has been used extensively by researchers and evaluators in development. It is a strength-based approach based on five core principles: first, that communities possess the solutions and expertise to best address their own problems;  second, that these communities are self-organising entities with sufficient human resources and assets to derive solutions to communal problems, third, that communities possess a ‘collective intelligence’, equally distributed through the community, which the PD approach seeks to foster and draw out; fourth, that the foundation of any PD approach rests on sustainability and the act of enabling a community to discover solutions to their own problems through the study of local “positive deviants”, and five, that behaviour change is best achieved through practice and the act of “doing”.

In applying the PD approach, an investigator must first obtain an invitation from the community in question requesting their aid in addressing a problem they have collectively identified as important. Once this invitation is obtained, it is the investigator’s task to work as a facilitator in guiding community members through the four “Ds” of PD:

  • “Define” the problem: in cooperation with the community, identify the problems(s) and establish a quantitative baseline to measure progress towards addressing them, while identifying key stakeholders and decision-makers.
  • “Determine” the presence of PD individuals or groups: through observation and data analysis, the community works towards identifying key “positive deviants” amongst them.
  • “Discover” existing uncommon practices or behaviours: a stage of community-led inquiry into the successful behaviour, attitudes, beliefs and practices which define the “positive deviants”, emphasising the empowerment of the community through the realisation that their problem(s) can be overcome through local solutions.
  • “Design” and develop initiatives to leverage these solutions: Once successful strategies are identified, the community decides which ones to follow, and designs an implementation strategy.
  • “Discern” the initiative’s effectiveness: The M&E aspect of the PD approach is participatory. Evaluation encourages the community by highlighting “social proof” - aspects of progress and reinforcing optimism in their power for behavioural and social change

(Source: Positive Deviance Initiative.)


A 2008 ODI study of livelihoods, nutrition, and anti-retroviral therapy (ART) employed a PD approach to studying the relationship between HIV/AIDs and food security among Kenyan and Zambian subjects. By identifying successful positive deviants and examining their coping mechanisms, the study was able to isolate a series of promising strategies for promotion of food security among ART users (such as urban farming).

(Overseas Development Institute, 2008)


Advice for CHOOSING this approach (tips and traps)

  • Be aware that PD is particularly time and labour intensive, and requires a skilled facilitator.
  • The PD process occurs in a non-traditional, iterative fashion, and demands a degree of comfort in uncertainty from donors, planners, and implementers as the PD study takes its time to scale up.

Advice for USING this approach (tips and traps)

  • The PD approach is often messy, chaotic, and iterative – as such, it emphasizes process over efficiency. Investigators should be patient.
  • An ideal PD facilitator is an active listener, who asks specific open-ended questions, demonstrates empathy and humility, and withholds their own expertise unless asked directly by the community. This can represent a challenge for researchers unprepared for such a lack of control and power-sharing.
  • As with all participatory M&E practices, be sure to keep non-literate community members in mind when designing evaluation exercises.




Overseas Development Institute. (2008). HIV, Food and Drugs: Livelihoods, Nutrition, and Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) in Kenya and Zambia. Retrieved from https://odi.org/en/publications/hiv-food-and-drugs-livelihoods-nutrition-and-anti-retroviral-therapy-art-in-kenya-and-zambia/

Pant, L.P. and Hambly Odame, H. (2009) “The Promise of Positive Deviants: Bridging Divides between Scientific Research and Local Practices in Smallholder Agriculture.” The Knowledge Management for Development Journal 5:2, pp. 138-150.

Richard P., Sternin, J and Sternin, M. (2010) The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. (Boston: Harvard Business Press).

Sternin, J. (2002) "Positive deviance: A new paradigm for addressing today’s problems today." Journal of Corporate Citizenship, pp.5:57-62.

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