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Positive Deviance


The idea for this Pattern comes from a book of that title.

I am continuing in the style of trying to write something that explains the Pattern and why it works along the lines of Christopher Alexander’s original book. For this particular suggested Pattern, it seems important to point out some of the caveats and challenges. I may be that this is important for all Patterns but I’m still puzzling over how much these should be a specific part of each Pattern.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas March 23-April 7, 2018


In any complex situation that you might want to “improve” or “fix,” there are some who are in that situation and have already figured out how to succeed. Instead of designing and imposing a solution, you can find out who the success stories are, observe what they are doing, get feedback from the observed and then encourage those involved in the success stories to share what they do with their larger community. 



Complex problems can often only be solved by groups. In some cases, a problem seems overwhelming, impossible, or insoluble.  People from the “Global North” for example, see a situation such as illiteracy or malnutrition and wish to use their resources and knowledge to solve a problem for others who are experiencing the problem. It is certainly worthy to want to help others and to share abundant resources. However, even when one is careful, it is easy to intervene in such a way that the problem is not really solved but only temporarily ameliorated. In other cases, the problem is actually made worse or the problem that is focused on is solved, but other even more severe problems result.

For example, a so-called primitive society may rely on hunting and gathering for its existence. The people are okay under normal circumstances but have no extra resources to “better” their life. Instead, they are taught by well-meaning people in the “Global North” to grow a cash crop that brings in enough money that they can buy a variety of foods as well as more clothing, medical supplies, and housing. This all works fine until the monoculture crop gets a disease. If the “primitive society” is lucky, this happens fairly quickly while the tribe still retains the necessary hunting, fishing, and gathering skills to survive. In worse cases, perhaps the skills or the lands needed no longer exist and the people are much worse off than they were before the intervention by the “Global North.”

Of course, not every such intervention is well-intentioned. In some cases, the real goal of the interveners is to make a lot of money off a crop of tea, coffee, opium, or cocaine. In other cases, the natives become miners for diamonds or precious metals. It might or might not also be an intention to destroy any possibility that the natives in the land can still live off that land in the way that they and their ancestors have done for millennia.

Even in the best of circumstances, there will be unknown and often deleterious side-effects of interventions. For example, perhaps the women of a particular tribe used to spend considerable time together in the village center pounding roots and talking with each other. Because they were doing this in the center of the village, they also easily helped each other watch all the village’s children and to watch for predators. During this time, all sorts of other “work” might also have been done. The women as a group may have solved many budding feuds within the tribe, or done gentle match-making, or experimented with different shaped tools and so on. Because they bonded with each other, they may have also made family break-ups due to infidelity less likely. The point is that an outside look at the culture may only see “inefficiency” in what is actually an effective social and economic system.


Regardless of how it came to be, the fact of today is that many people in various parts of the world are in dire need of clean water, food, shelter, or medical care. Within the so-called “developed” world or Global North, there are other widespread problems such as the opioid crisis, obesity, vast wealth inequalities, and, in the United States, mass shootings. We tend to think of such large scale problems, regardless of the geography, as being both general and systemic. And we typically look to use analytical tools to diagnose problems and generate solutions to be imposed by the government or NGO. Such imposed solutions will almost always have unintended consequences, some of which will be negative.


There are many problems in the world and the most severe have to do with people’s basic needs not being met. If one tries to solve a problem and then impose that solution, there is a good chance that the solution will be wrong. Even if it’s “correct” in solving the given problem, there’s a good chance that it will have negative side-effects that may be worse than the original problem. Moreover, even if the solution is “perfect” and avoids negative side-effects, it may still fail to be adopted because the people necessary for implementing the solution were insufficiently involved initially in finding, formulating, and solving the problem.

When it comes to problems in logic and mathematics, there can be some reasonable notion of the “goodness” of a solution which people will agree on, given enough background and training. However, problems in real world settings are generally too complex to allow of legitimate “proof.” People will have different values, preferences, and experiences so that they will tend not to agree unless everyone involved at least has a chance to feel as though they have been involved throughout the process.



  • Real world problems dealing with basic needs are likely to be complex. (If there were “simple” solutions, they would already have been found).
  • An outside group may have knowledge or perspective that allows them to see possible solutions that the people experiencing the problem may not know about or see.
  • Sometimes, people intentionally mislead others; they claim to have a solution to a problem based on superior knowledge or technology but actually, they are just manipulating others.
  • Even when operating with the best of intentions, outside problem solvers may not understand enough about the context, values, and culture to design solutions that will work.
  • People generally want to be consulted on decisions that impact their lives.

* Typically, people within a community are more trusted than outsiders.

  • When feedback loops are slow, delayed, or noisy, people may not know when they have solved a problem or made progress on it.
  • Most solutions to complex problems require the active cooperation of the people most affected in order to be implemented and maintained.
  • A proposed solution is more likely to be adopted if the solution comes from community members.

* In complex problems in the real world, there will often be a large variation in how well people are solving these on their own.


When facing a complex, real world problematic situation, instead of having an outside group find, formulate and solve a problem and then try  to implement that solution, instead, seek to find people within the community who have already solved it or partially solved it. Help to understand the nature of the solution and facilitate the communication so that those who have solved it are aware of how they solved the problem and communicate it to the larger community.


1. The idea of “positive deviance” is similar to the progress in “best practices” that is often achieved in sports, arts, and crafts. For instance, in tennis, hitting the ball harder means your opponent has less time to get to the ball and more trouble judging how to hit their own shot. However, if a player hits the ball too hard, it will tend to go out of bounds. Some tennis players have experimented with hitting the ball with a huge amount of topspin. This allows the ball to be hit fast but with a trajectory that allows it to clear the net but still dive down into the court. Because such tennis players have tended to be successful, newer players try to copy these techniques.  Similarly, good weavers, painters, and writers try to understand how those who are “best” at the particular craft achieve the results that they do.


2. In the opening example in Positive Deviance, aid workers are concerned about malnutrition among rural children in Viet Nam.  Various charities have, in the past, handed out additional foodstuffs to families and the children do better…for a time. Once the charity moves on or runs out of money, however, the nutritional needs stop being met and kids are just as bad off as they were before.

Instead, the authors of Positive Deviance discovered that among a large number of extremely poor rural families in Viet Nam, there were a few who had kids who were not suffering from malnutrition. In order to to find out why, they initially interviewed both these families and the (much larger) group of families whose kids did have malnutrition. These interviews revealed no differences. Of course, there are many possible explanations including luck of getting or not getting diseases or parasites or possibly genetic factors.

When the authors investigated by careful observation, however, they discovered three crucial differences between the numerous underweight kids and the few normal weight kids. First, the families of the normal weight kids included an older relative who fed the kids a noon meal every day. Most of the families fed the kids in the morning before going out to work in the rice fields all day and again upon coming home. The kids could only eat so much during two meals; though hungry, their stomachs were small capacity. The kids ate more total during three meals. Second, the families with healthier kids included in the daily soup, not only rice, but tiny crustaceans and bitter herbs that grew among the rice stalks. Third, the parents of healthier kids were more rigorous about hand-washing. All the kids were supposed to wash their hands before eating, but in the case of the healthier kids, if the family dog came up and the kid petted the dog during a meal, that kid would have to go wash their hands again.

After these discoveries were made, the authors of Positive Deviance did not “explain” to the villagers what the solution was. Instead, the kids were publicly weighed each week. The families of those who were of “normal” weight explained what they were doing. Some families adopted these practices and everyone could see that, over time, these kids began to thrive too. The community became convinced on the basis of what worked for others within the community and as explained by others in the community and they altered their behavior to match those in the community who had a better solution.

3. Of course, in some sense, having the whole species “learn” from the cases of “positive deviance” is more or less how major mechanisms of evolution work. There is always variation along many dimensions among the individuals of a species. In any given environment, there are some variations which will confer a relative advantage compared with others. Those with an “advantage” will tend to prosper and have more offspring that those who do not have this advantage. Over time, most of the members of the species will come to have the advantageous trait.


Resulting Context:

Once people participate in a community-wide effort to see who and what is being successful and then understand what they need to change in their own behavior. The cohesion and self-efficacy of the community is increased. The solution tends to have fewer “side-effects” and is necessarily respectful of the community culture.

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Small Successes Early, Build from Common Ground.

Caveats and Limitations: 

There were no reported bad side-effects to implementing the nutrition and lifestyle changes suggested by the observations in the study. However, we must realize that there could be. For instance, it might have been the case that when everyone started harvesting the bitter herbs and crustaceans, those species might have been killed off. As a result, it could have turned out that none of the kids would now have that advantage.

In general, a solution that “works” for a small minority might not work if everyone does it. We can easily imagine a situation where a few people in a village of farmers are rich while most people are not. A thorough investigation might reveal that the few who are rich got that way because they cheated when they weighed their produce and stole from the church collection plate. This is obviously not a “solution” that will work when everyone does it!


Pascale, Richards & Sternin, Jerry. (2010). The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.



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