Positive Deviance vs. Best Practices

Over time, I’ve seen people write disparagingly about the use of best practices in innovation. A recent example of this comes from Paul Martin in Say ‘Best Practice’ again, I dare you. As Paul notes:

For me the term ‘Best Practice’ conjures up images of a race toward uniform mediocrity, led by those who follow the crowd.

I understand his position. It’s a version of fast-following in a way, where people do not take a fresh look at an activity. They just follow what others are doing. You may share his passion for banishing ‘best practices’. Although be careful there. Some things really don’t need innovation if they’re not critical to a company’s differentiation and growth. For instance, if there are best practices for closing the accounting books on a quarterly basis, what issue of mediocrity is there?

The issue with best practices appears to be:

  • It’s done by an organization with which you compete
  • It propagates the status quo rather than break new ground
  • It doesn’t differentiate you, so why would you do just do what everyone else does?

There is a form of “best practices” that doesn’t violate the above. It’s called positive deviance.  Positive deviants are people who deviate from the norm and achieve superior results for an activity. They don’t have access to different resources than others. They just do things differently. A great example comes from Vietnam. The Save the Children organization wanted to address the pervasive malnourishment of children. In conducting field research, they came across families that had very healthy children. What were they doing differently? They fed their children the crabs and shrimp that were around their village. These protein-rich animals were available everywhere, but were disdained as trash, not worthy of consumption. Yet, these same disdainers had children who were malnourished.

Best practices indeed!

The point here is that positive deviance is a form of best practice that is:

  • Emergent
  • Based on experimentation
  • Consistent with internal community norms and context

While best practices may come from consultants and media coverage, positive deviance is more localized. And it’s often hidden. People aren’t openly talking about what they’re doing different. I liken this to William Gibson’s famous observation:

The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

Why not change that? In my post, Beyond Ideation: Four Fresh Ways to Generate Innovation, I talk about running campaigns for four different types of insight:

  1. Challenge orthodoxy
  2. What’s working (i.e. positive deviance)
  3. Problem-sourcing
  4. Trendscouting

These are different ways to use crowdsourcing beyond the normal ideation use case. Including finding your positive deviants.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.



About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

4 Responses to Positive Deviance vs. Best Practices

  1. Bill Bennett says:

    One problem I have with “best practice” is that I fear too often it is confused with standard practice. Something isn’t good just because it’s popular. A practice isn’t ‘best’ just because it’s widespread.

    • I think you’ve hit on the sense of people’s concerns with “best practice”. In the linked post here (Four Fresh Ways to Generate Innovation), I also talk about asking people to orthodoxy. ‘Orthodoxy’ will include some ‘best practices’. Worth challenging.

  2. I struggle on the wide use or reliance (actually often the crutch) on best practice. To compare where you are with others might be deemed searching for best practice but I feel there are better places to build your practices. I very much like the Cynefin model that determines practice by type of issue you are dealing with. If it is simply, the incremental need, then use Best Practice, if what you are attempting is complicated t5hen get expertise in and seek out good practice, if it is complex (and much of breakthrough, distinctive innovation löies here) you work through emergent practice and if you are in some form of chaos or crisis you can only apply novel practice.

    The nuances of slicing and dicing best practice really still covers the overriding issues that no one else’s adopted (best) practices works for others as well. Those that seek out best practice are usually behind in their practices, wanting to justify a change of practice and point to others to justify this. That only goes so far, about where the best practice was, when they found it and by the time they adjust, alter their own practices the world has moved on and they are still behind.

    To get ahead in practices you need to think of practices in multiple ways.

  3. Pingback: Wanna go for excellence? Kill the “best practices”. | Deskero Blog

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