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Positive Deviance: What Darwin can Teach Government


Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest” can apply to organizations as well as to species. A workforce may go through an evolutionary process driven by individuals with unusual but favorable behaviors. These successful outliers, or “positive deviants,” diverge from the norm, but their practices can result in positive outcomes and enable their survival in the workplace. Sometimes a “positive deviant” succeeds because of an intrinsic characteristic, such as an unusual strength or a particularly sharp memory. But more often, these individuals simply do things a bit differently— sometimes even bending the rules—to get work done better, faster, or cheaper. Leaders can identify these “rebels with a cause” within an organization, figure out the specific behaviors that contribute to their success, and diffuse their wisdom across the entire workforce. The first step is to use measurable performance data to help identify outliers.

Once an organization has found them, observational field studies and interviews can help uncover how they achieved success when their peers or neighbors did not. Finally, the organization can use carefully designed interventions and grassroots activities to transform positively deviant behaviors into standard operating procedures.

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