12 years of facilitating complex social change processes with the Positive Deviance Approach (PD)

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Author: Lars Thuesen

Change Leader and Positive Deviance Facilitator, Founder of WIN (The Welfare Improvement Network)

My team and I have been fortunate to help facilitate solving complex social problems using the positive deviance approach for the last 12 years, firstly with the Danish Prison Service, later with UN agencies, international and local NGO’s in the Balkans and Palestine. Here are 3 key things we have learned over the years: 

  1. Let go of control – from managers to leaders and facilitators of social change

  2. Enlarge solution spaces by distributing ownership at multiple levels   

  3. Community involvement in all phases of the innovation processes: communities define problems, discover PD solutions, and develop monitoring tools to keep track of progress  


1. Let go of control – from managers to leaders and facilitators of social change

In 2007, as newly-appointed head of strategy and organizational development in the Danish Prison Service, my team and I faced numerous challenges. The reputation and image of the prison service was at a low point. We were being criticized by politicians, the media, the trade unions, and even, internally, by our leaders and staff. Our CEO wanted my team to present a solid plan for change. We had tried several change initiatives previously, but nothing had worked effectively and could be sustained. 

During the summer of 2007, I met PD co-founder Jerry Sternin and change leadership scholar and author, Richard Pascale, while participating in an executive masters’ program at Oxford University in the UK.  Jerry introduced us to Positive Deviance (PD). I came away truly inspired and also puzzled, because I knew that if my team were going to test and implement this approach, we needed to unlearn or at least let go of a lot of our normal ways of working and be open to new mind-sets tools and innovation processes. I called Jerry and we decided to bring PD to Denmark and initiate a pilot project in the prison service. My colleagues were highly skeptical, but I managed to persuade them to give PD a try. 

Though facing a rough beginning, the process and results were amazing. The Innovation team and I gradually learned to become experts in being non-experts, meaning being able to facilitate processes where communities (guards, social workers and inmates) in the prisons were asked how they saw problems that kept them awake at night. We helped to flip problems to discover what behaviours were already practiced successfully by community members. We ‘gave work back to the people’, which at the time was highly unusual. Communities in the prisons identified and upscaled PD behaviors themselves. Something we had never tried before. The results speak for themselves: e.g. reduction of threats and violence among inmates and against staff, improved relationships between inmate and staff, improved employee satisfaction. See this link for more information about the prison case: https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=http://win-org.eu/onewebmedia/ComplexityUnravelled.pdf 

A prisoner’s heavily-tattooed hand on the guard’s shoulder at Nyborg maximum security prison, showing the high degree of trust and relationship building. Source: Personal files of the author used with permission.

A prisoner’s heavily-tattooed hand on the guard’s shoulder at Nyborg maximum security prison, showing the high degree of trust and relationship building. Source: Personal files of the author used with permission.

2. Enlarge solution spaces by distributing ownership at multiple levels   

After 15 years of serving as a senior manager, I decided to leave the prison service in 2014. I wanted to explore more ways to help people in vulnerable communities to solve complex social problems using asset-based social change approaches to disseminate and upscale solutions of ‘what already works well’. 

In Moldova, we have been helping UN Women and partners to accomplish their goal of reducing violence against women, which in Moldova is a serious problem rooted in cultural norms with almost 7 out of 10 women experiencing some kind of violence. The PD team has since 2015 managed helping communities discover positive champion behaviours among survivors of violence, police officers, social workers and even former aggressors and upscaled them with impressive results. 

A key principle has been a ‘if it is about me – not without me’ philosophy. Because violence is a very complex and relational behavioural problem, it has been very important to involve all relevant stakeholders at different levels. Therefore, a key driver of progress has been the ability to enlarge solution and innovation spaces by engaging relevant partners and community members at multiple levels. And even politicians in the parliament. It has been possible to psychically bring people together from different sectors and levels to have conversations about change. But also, in terms of changing perspectives and mind-sets. 

We have experienced that a combination of internal and external change facilitators is a powerful driver for positive change.

Women positive champions: survivors of violence and supporters demonstrating in Moldova. Source: UN Women used with permission.

Women positive champions: survivors of violence and supporters demonstrating in Moldova. Source: UN Women used with permission.

Read more about the ending violence against women case here: Eliminating Violence Against Women in Moldova with PD

3. Community involvement in all phases of the innovation processes: communities define problems, discover PD solutions, and develop monitoring tools to keep track of progress  

Once successful PD behaviours have been discovered and unraveled, it is crucial to help communities to disseminate and upscale. Thinking of effectively tools of keeping track of success evidently comes to mind. As professionals we usually define indicators for success and impact. It is in our DNA. A positive deviance innovation process involves community stakeholders deeply in defining criteria for success and performance indicators. That is different from traditional change approaches. This can be done by helping communities develop scorecards that can be used as supporting structures for dialogues among community members as they monitor the progress of change. 

For example, during workshops in Gaza and the West Bank in 2018, local NGO’s and we helped community members develop quantitative and qualitative indicators – so-called community scorecards and tools – so they can keep track of upscaling of positive champion behaviours to reduce early and relative marriages, improve women’s heritage rights, and improve sharing household work. Community members also agreed to meet monthly or bi-monthly with updated scorecards to discuss progress.

Draft scorecard developed and presented by community members in Gaza, Palestine – not measuring and evaluation experts. Men and women for gender and equality project spearheaded by UN Women and NDC (local NGO). Source: personal files of the author used with permission.

Draft scorecard developed and presented by community members in Gaza, Palestine – not measuring and evaluation experts. Men and women for gender and equality project spearheaded by UN Women and NDC (local NGO). Source: personal files of the author used with permission.

Read more about the UN Palestine Innovation Labs here: A UN Innovation Lab for Palestine 


A major event during these years has been organizing the International Positive Deviance Conference: Past, Present and Future in 2016 with the help of many, many good people. 120 PD enthusiast from more than 20 countries met for a week in Copenhagen, Denmark to share experiences and discuss the future of the PD approach. Take a look at conference website to learn more, watch videos and presentations: http://pdcph16.com

For more information, please contact Lars Thuesen: Lars.thuesen@win-org.eu or http://win-org.eu/english/index.html

Tips on PD Facilitation

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Author: Mohammad Shafique

PD Facilitator, Behavior Change Communication Specialist

  1. Before entering into a community, try to understand its social, political and cultural context and understand the dynamics of the community very well 

  2. Working with community is fun, it’s a great learning opportunity, therefore, take it as a privilege and enjoy this interaction

  3. Always go as learner and learn about their culture, traditions, behaviours and the overall context 

  4. Respect culture and values of the community and try to build on these cultural events to disseminate the positive behaviours of the community

  5. Always consider that the community is the expert; they know about their issues, problems, areas and what constitute these issues.  Therefore, always engage them as ‘active’ partner to address the problems together 

  6. Be inclusive and engage all the segments of the community in the PD process.  Avoid any discrimination on the basis of social class, ethnicity, gender or geographical distance.  Provide everyone equal opportunities to be part of the project to ensure their ownership

  7. Positive Deviance approach builds the capacity and self-efficacy of the community members so that they could gradually take the lead to solve their issues.  Therefore, build their confidence, capacity and skills so that they could take charge and solve their issues without any external help

  8. The PD process takes few weeks to understand the context of the community, therefore, go along-with local leaders, work in the community in a non-threatening way, for example, do not walk through community holding cameras or note books, it makes the community suspicious.  Always conduct transact walk empty hand and make the mental notes and when you complete the walk, then sit and take notes.

  9. Respect community’s time and routines and always plan your work when community is available.  If you plan your work based on their convenience, they will give you a quality time and you will come up with rich information.  But if you go with your convenience, they may want to finish it early or do not give your quality responses. 

  10. When you have identified positive deviant individual, make sure, that there is no cultural sensitivity to share their stories using their identify. In case of sensitive topic, always ask their permission to use their identity or names to share their positive behaviours with other community members

  11. Always keep community’s expectation low, do not make false promises or give incentives, it will raise their expectations and they will expect such favours in the future or without incentive they might cease participating 

  12. Always wear culturally appropriate dresses and avoid wearing expensive dresses or ornaments as it creates social distance

  13. Use story telling approaches during the PD process and training of facilitators as it helps the communities better understand

  14. Use lots of local games to explain the PD concepts, games help the participants open up and create a very conducive environment for learning

Muhammad Shafique is a specialist in communication and behaviour change with areas of expertise in malaria and dengue prevention and control, maternal and newborn health, and polio eradication. He has worked with Malaria Consortium, Save the Children, and Merlin organzations and in many countries, including Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Pakistan.

To learn about other individuals with experience working with PD, visit our Facilitators page.