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 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2010: Management

The Power of Context

The importance of context as a determinant of behavior is the central feature of The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. One author is the redoubtable management writer and consultant Richard T. Pascale. The other two are Monique Sternin and the late Jerry Sternin, who passed away during the writing of the book. In the 1990s, as workers with the U.S. nongovernmental organization Save the Children, the Sternins pioneered the application of the positive deviance (PD) method of change to some of the world’s most intractable social problems. PD is now being used to tackle complex social problems that defy technical or externally imposed solutions, such as societal inhibitions or cultural mores that cause people to refuse smallpox vaccinations or reject the use of mosquito nets.

PD is not a method for transmitting knowledge or sharing best practices; it involves changing behavior by changing social contexts. It recognizes that organizational habits, both good and bad, are sustained by subtle cues and triggers of which the actors themselves are usually unaware. When these cues and triggers are brought to the surface and actors’ responses to them are changed, complex problems can be solved. The catalysts for this process are so-called positive deviants, the few people or small groups within a troubled community who obtain consistently better results while living and working in the same context (in other words, with access to the same resources and subject to the same constraints). The trick is to get everyone else to consciously choose to follow their example.

The authors take turns writing chapters that illustrate applications of PD, some of which are composite examples, combining several cases into one. Despite the drawbacks of such an approach, which makes it difficult to know exactly what happened at which site, the stories themselves are evocative and compelling. The most powerful one involves the grisly practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt. In Vietnam, where PD was first used to alleviate child malnutrition, there was consensus that malnutrition was an undesirable condition. In Egypt, on the other hand, there was no such agreement on the perniciousness of FGM. The traumatic ritual was rarely discussed, but it was deeply embedded in the culture; as of 1997, 97 percent of Egyptian women had been circumcised in some way. Then Monique Sternin and her colleagues began asking the positive deviants — uncircumcised women and the men married to them — to talk about their lives on videotape, offering social proof that such people were just like everyone else. This step required a good deal of informal discussion and socialization before anyone was comfortable appearing on camera. The PD team chose a Coptic monastery far from Cairo — a safe place both physically and psychologically — to bring together small groups of women. Here they showed the women the tapes, and discussed the idea of changing the practice in choreographed conversations that used variations in space and pace and the palliative power of humor to reduce tension and put people at ease. The participants shared their stories and talked about their families, gradually breaking the code of silence surrounding FGM. Over time, the program spread: By 2000 the incidence of FGM among Egyptian women was down to 93 percent, and today official FGM abandonment programs are increasingly supported in that country.

The best way to think about the PD approach is as process consulting rather than content consulting. In the latter, the general assumption is that the organization has questions and the expert consultant brings answers. Process consulting turns that assumption upside down: The organization has the answers, but has not heard the questions. That’s because the questions have not been posed in the right form and context — in a manner, in other words, in which any answers have clear implications for action. Positive deviance helps address these issues by providing the example of small groups of people who already have part of the solution in hand, and whose examples help their colleagues discover the solutions for themselves.

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