Undoing Dreary Design: Positive Deviance Offers Hope

How can we reverse the damage done by over seventy years of mind-numbing additions to our built environment?

Whenever the dysfunctional norm (such as described in four previous posts below) seems hopelessly entrenched, we can look to the stories and principles of Positive Deviance (PD) to see a way forward. PD can be viewed as a form of Evidence-Based Optimism. It is based on the notion that frequently, if we develop our powers of observation and Colombo-style inquiry, we can discover where the problem doesn’t occur.

This approach is very different from simply adopting best practices. Best practices tend to be instigated from the top down. The “best” may well be temporary (likely to become future worst practices) and they are built on assumptions about what is possible.

For example, the overwhelming disincentives for change in U.S. health care economics may lead us to assume that the norm for high cost, low return billings and habits are just baked into the whole cantankerous system. Relying on best practices for delivering services that are not working will yield the wrong answer.

Yet the way the Mayo Clinic does things places it among the highest-quality, lowest-cost health care organizations in the United States.

In their book “The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems” Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin provide examples of the PD way of looking at deep-rooted situations that appear intractable. The authors describe how amplifying successful but “deviant” people and practices can bring about change naturally.

Let’s discover and amplify the PDs in human-centric design.

– Sharon VanderKaay


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    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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