The Organizational Strategist

February 22, 2010

Unlocking Hidden Potential through Positive Deviants


In any organization, there will be top performers, exemplary people, and outliers from the norm of the workplace. Those people have experienced the extraordinary in some fashion and the better ones will be able to repeat or recreate their great efforts over time. One can identify them because they are the ones that receive awards, get recognition, obtain big promotions and raises, succeed where others fail, get placed in the high profile and visible projects and more. They are the rock stars of an organization. These are the positive deviants. They are set apart from the flock because of their efforts, which makes them a deviant. Their excellent results are the positive aspect.

-Background of Positive Deviance-

My experience with searching for positive deviants came from my studies and application of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as taught by David Cooperrider and Ron Fry while in my later years at Weatherhead School of Management. When taken as a part of an AI interview and allowing for interviewees to engage in their own stories, positive deviants or examples of their actions can be a very powerful and moving start to a change initiative. When the AI interview questionnaire is well worded to allow for variety, diversity, and imagination, interviewees share their stories of positive deviance with pleasure and fond remembrance. Eyes light up, energy flows from the story teller, and everyone gets engaged in the moment. It’s a marvel to witness and leaves a lasting impression on everyone.

The more diverse and encompassing the positive deviant search is, the higher the likelihood that fantastic ideas, actions, and results will emerge. Any time where an experience or approach may be different, a positive deviant search could take place. If there is a rigid structure that must be followed with no divergence, then there will be no deviants, positive or otherwise, available. The tightly scripted internationally routed computer tech support calls, where the tech support person knows no more vocabulary than the script itself, comes to mind. That is a situation where positive deviants would be difficult to find. The environment where positive deviants will blossom the most would be one that is diverse, learning, experimenting and evolving. For example, business development professionals that make sales calls seem like an art form of intricately dancing wordplay, skillful topic navigation, and provocative offers would be a highly promising area to look for positive deviants.

-Tapping into the Latent Positive Deviance-

Surfacing the stories and examples of positive deviance is the core element of improving an organization or initiative. Here are some simplified steps to take to realize the value of positive deviance.

  1. Set the topic, context, direction or strategy that frames the environment where some may have demonstrated positive deviance
  2. Inquire about examples where the extraordinary happened in as many areas as possible
  3. Capture the story, knowledge, ideas, and more from these positive deviant examples
  4. Combine the captured information by theme
  5. Make the information actionable to individuals, teams, and organizations

There are many, many ways that learning can take place from positive deviants. Here are some opportunities that immediately come to mind:

  • Personal and professional development
  • Business process improvement
  • Training material expansion
  • Informational interview arrangements
  • Product/Service innovation
  • Career advice and insight
  • Cross-functional or team collaboration
  • Efficiency or effectiveness acceleration


Everyone has their brilliant moments. Some people, groups, or organizations have more moments than others. Unearthing and surfacing those moments of greatness and making more of them happen can be achieved through cultivation from positive deviants. Recognizing the sound of opportunity knocking is the first part, but taking the chance to engage in that opportunity leading to new adventures is a decision everyone must make. Who wouldn’t want to learn from those who have had astonishing adventures?



  1. Excellent material. Thanks.

    Seems a natural link to profiling excellent performers to discover what they do and how they think. I’ve done some work on this before I knew about Ai. You are welcome to access and use it. It’s here

    Any comments welcome.

    Best wishes,

    Nick Heap

    Comment by Nick Heap — February 24, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    • Thanks Nick for reading, commenting, and sharing! I’ll check it out.

      Comment by Whit — February 26, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

  2. Although being a successful positive deviant is not the *only* reason people get promotions and big raises. Depending on the culture of the organisation, other abilities – such as being good at playing organisational politics – may also contribute.

    Links to more articles about Positive Deviance here:

    Best wishes,
    Andy Smith

    Comment by Andy Smith — February 25, 2010 @ 3:12 am

    • Good point Andy. There are many aspects that contribute to success. Finding out what enables and/or creates the situation for positive deviants to become the ones that get promotions, raises, opportunities and the like would be a helpful follow on activity as well. That’s a good blog! There are a lot of helpful looking articles there.

      Comment by Whit — February 26, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

  3. Hi Whit,

    Can you comment on whether HR attempts to corral, correct or eliminate the ‘negative’ deviants in an organization has any impact on the ability of ‘positive’ deviants to exist, arise or prosper in that same organization. Are they not in danger of merely clipping both ends of a normally distributed population??

    Is there a correlation between positive deviation and entrepreneurship, leadership or other ‘valuable’ traits?



    Comment by Matt Lawes — February 26, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

  4. Hi there Matt,

    Thank you for your contribution. That’s an interesting couple of inquiries. Here are my thoughts.

    I’d say that the manner of an intervention, HR or otherwise, would determine its effect on curbing or inspiring positive deviants. The more empowerment, idea generation, experimentation, and freedom that is allowed be it due to the organization’s culture, processes/procedures, or otherwise, the more likely positive deviants can emerge. If HR intervenes to provide training, job sharing or other avenues of self help opportunities, then creating positive deviance would be cultivated. However, if say, HR has to make annual cuts for the bottom 10% or 20% of workplace performers intense internal competition, taking credit for other’s work, and/or playing internal politics could all happen. That kind of environment would likely stifle the traits of creativity, adaptability and inspiration which, in turn, create examples of positive deviance. There will still be a few outstanding performers that will still succeed despite a caustic environment, but the overall cost to the workers and organization may not be worth the sacrifice of the potential for excellence among many.

    I feel that the most successful people, whether they be leaders, entrepreneurs and other types, are the ones that understand, find and create situations to make their own example of positive deviance. That kind of positive deviance may be creating an environment for team mates to succeed, delivering a timely and needed service or finding a market niche product.

    Comment by Whit — February 26, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

  5. Whit,

    Brilliant post. Not enough is said about the power of positive deviants and you tied it together nicely with the practice of appreciative inquiry.

    You would be interested to hear about what one of our partners is doing in this area over at
    They use a wisdom capture process similar to what you describe using an organizations positive deviants. Turns out, no matter what the job, positive deviants think about their job very differently than typical performers. They have also figured out a process to easily and quickly get everyone to start seeing the job as if they were a positive deviant- brilliant! Their 4 step process is:1. Leverage the power of your positive deviants2. Apply positive visualization to create strong motivation. 3.Employ neuroscience to sustain your high performance 4. Utilize mass customization to drive large scale change.
    Here’s to creating more positive deviants!

    Comment by Tom Rausch — March 16, 2010 @ 7:26 am

    • Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing Tom! Cerebyte’s process sounds quite interesting. How is neuroscience brought into the process for sustaining the effort(s)? Richard Boyatzis, one of my professors from Weatherhead, taught a fair amount on neuroscience when covering his Intentional Change Theory. I’d be interested to learn more so I could see any comparisons, patterns, and other elements of interest.

      Comment by Whit — March 16, 2010 @ 10:50 am

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