Week One and my students are already exposing my limitations – this is wonderful!

This term, I’m teaching a new course at LSE based on How Change Happens. It’s called ‘Advocacy, Campaigning and outliers-positive-devianceGrassroots activism’. It lasts 11 weeks, and is the first fully fledged university course I’ve taught, complete with lectures, seminars and assessed work (essays, but also blogs and vlogs). So far, I’m loving it.

I realized how much fun this could become during the first week of seminar groups (2 x 15 students). Each one hour session is led by groups of students who do the readings and lead the discussion. In week one, the two groups headed off in very different directions and styles. One discussion on Positive Deviance got me particularly interested.

I regularly bang on about Positive Deviance on the blog. It involves identifying and studying the positive outliers on any given issue, to try and understand where the system itself has thrown up solutions to any given problem. Once you’ve identified the reasons behind the outliers, you encourage ‘social learning’ – people in similar situations seeing for themselves, and hopefully changing their behaviours as a result. The Power of Positive Deviance, by Jerry and Monique Sternin, captures both the method and its application to everything from halving malnutrition in Vietnam to FGM in Egypt to tackling superbugs in US hospitals. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. At a deeper level, PD attracts me as an approach because it respects the system, and is not ‘all about us’ and our projects. I’m even thinking about making it the subject of a future book.

What the students wanted to talk about, though, were the limits to PD, some of which included:

  • PD is only useful for adaptations within the existing system of power and institutions, rather than challenging the system itself, so if genuine transformation is needed, it may not be up to it (in fitness landscape terms, you might be looking for variations on the same hill, rather than jumping to a different hill)
  • In fact, isn’t PD in danger of ignoring power and becoming a bit of a technocratic fix?
  • PD seems to work better for identifying and changing behaviours than for crunchier issues like allocating resources such as land, water or money.
  • The PD method of identifying outliers + social learning is only relevant to cohesive communities, where positive outliers can be easily replicated.

Positive Deviance Easter IslandThe interaction between PD and power was particularly interesting. PD works by identifying small positive experiences and scaling them up. But what if the act of scaling tips over from a small variation that can be absorbed by the existing system, and becomes a threat to the powers that be? Would that make the idea of painless scaling a mirage? Is PD a positive-sum or zero-sum game?

PD also relies on some degree of consensus on what is a positive outlier in the first place, but that does not always exist. One person’s positive outlier (on tax reform, land redistribution, sexuality or access to abortion) can be another’s work of the devil.

And anyway, why was I so keen on PD as an alternative to outside intervention and projects? Was my objection ethical (opposition to/guilt over the White Saviour complex) or practical (outsiders are rubbish at identifying the problems, and even worse at solutions)? Some things, eg vaccination campaigns, should be in the form of external interventions, surely?

Thanks to Youmna Cham, Hussam Zalloum, Carlos Alberto Varela Arias, Katu Cyr, Alev Kayagil and Rashad Nimr for getting us off to such a good start. This term is clearly going to be really interesting!

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9 Responses to “Week One and my students are already exposing my limitations – this is wonderful!”
  1. Ben Ramalingam

    Interesting points & really great reflections by the students. It did make me think about the applications of PD to seemingly intractable problems such as FGM or reintegration of child soldiers? This interpretation does seem to rather take for granted a technocratic approach to PD, when in fact when it is successful, PD processes are facilitated by groups of locally-sensitive ‘development entrepreneurs’ who are aware of context, power, dynamics, critical junctures etc and actively work to navigate them.

  2. Sam

    Very good questions, and it reminds everybody how many things can go wrong fast if there is only attention to part of the picture. However, Like Ben, I would see Positive Deviance as a more flexible approach. PD questions the status quo. It opens the option for empowering people by using existing solutions. It can challenge power and status quo, it is possible, as it exists, so many of the power and bureacratic arguments are false.

    So indeed, PD is not a panacea, it is ” only” another tool for a systems approach.

  3. RobN

    Ditto – sounds like a good discussion. I would argue it is not enough that PD processes are facilitated by people used to navigating context/politics/critical junctures, etc. On its own, it isn’t clear how it gets at the problem of what examples of PD are seen as ‘successful’ or are picked up and worked with. Doesn’t this need an intentional and sustained focus on asking the hard reflexive questions – like, Is this incremental change going to contribute to a bigger change? Does that bigger change have the potential to get us where we need to be (e.g. a bit less ecosystem destruction or actually avoiding ecosystem collapse in future)? How does the external presentation of these changes affect their impact on systems (e.g. in an Michael Sandel, morals and markets, kind of way)?
    Without clarity of intention (at least in broad terms) to aim for something greater, then surely processes working with PD will inevitably tend to end up skewed towards tweaking existing systems, as Duncan says. As ever, I don’t think we can take out or downplay the intention in the process, even if we acknowledge we can’t predict how the results of our actions/intentions will ultimately affect a complex system.

  4. Kate Dyer

    I like the book ‘We Will Lead Africa: Everyday African leadership stories’. Lots of PD around leadership in all different areas/sectors including social entrepreneurship and change, many of them outside of aid where conventional searching for PD as the means to finding an intervention that works (Duncan’s 2×2 how confident in intervention / how confident in context) seems to happen. Getting into the leadership space in some of these stories is about stepping outside the limitations of existing institutions and power relations. Not so much, ‘Reculer pour mieux sauter’ (stepping back to jump better) – but stepping sideways to do it.

  5. Another very good book on PD is “Soul in the Computer: The Story of a Corporate Revolutionary”, by feminist activist Barbara Waugh, which ended up working as a HR executive at Hewlett-Packard.
    The book presents, in very practical terms, how to use a set of “radical tools” (where “amplifying positive deviance” plays the central one, but is complemented by others like “Reader´s theatre”, “Flying under the radar”, etc), to gradually transform the corporate culture of a Silicon Valley corporation. PD is presented as a way to challenge and transform the existing system of power and institutions, but to do it in gradual ways that reduce the chances to get a response from the “institutional immune system”.
    This text might be very useful for those “insider revolutionaries”, who are trying to change the ways in which the big “development corporations” (like DFID, Oxfam, etc) they work in operate.

  6. Pamela White

    Sounds fascinating Duncan. I wish there was a way for our Project teams in Nepal to participate 😉 We have all sorts of wicked behvioural problems that we are trying to tweak.
    But on another matter – there seems to be something wrong with the blog emailing. This happened once before a couple of years ago, then you noticed it and got someone to fix it. But since late 2017 the same thing has happened. The blog has stopped arriving in my email inbox. The only way I can read it
    is to remember to go to the site. Could you get someone to take a look? Maybe it is just me – but maybe there are many affected by this…

    • Duncan Green

      This from our ubergeeks: ‘Looking at full delivery history this user is getting mails but they are being regularly greylisted by her mail system (it’s returning a 451 greylisted error to us then we retry). Looks as though DFI are using a pretty aggressive anti-spam system. Emails are showing as successfully delivering at 4th attempt most days but highly likely they’re being marked as potential spam at her end even when they do get through.

      Have added a slightly more specific server response which might help. If she still has problems she should send fp2p@oxfamblogs.org to her IT department requesting it to be manually whitelisted.’