Positive deviance makes sense in Brazil
After 17 presentations about O Divergente Positive, plus many interviews and meetings I have been bowled over by the reception for the basic message of the book – do the right thing for sustainability despite the perversity of the institutions, processes and wilfully uncooperative people around you. Business leaders, universities, blogger networks and young entrepreneurs alike were very enthusiastic.
Was this due to the undoubted brilliance of the text, or was there something else? I did not pull any punches about the causes of unsustainability – a catastrophic imbalance between the demands of a growing population and the eroding powers of nature to supply, compounded, of course by climate change. No market I know can fix that – only great leadership! No one argued. And I didn’t trim the messages about what needed to change – and how quickly that had to happen.
Then I got it. I understood why audiences liked examples of how positive deviance worked where more direct action or campaigning didn’t. They were intrigued to hear how people like Wangari Matthai (in the book) proving how effective it could be: run a programme to plant trees all over Africa (popular with male leaders) with the primary purpose of developing women (not popular with male leaders!). And how strategic collaboration brought better results than competitiveness to get significant change. Some examples included Forum for the Future’s Sustainable Shipping Initiative (now an independent charity) and its relative new Net Positive project with its broad coalition of companies and organisations aiming to become net contributors to sustainability in the next 20 odd years (BT, IKEA, Coca Cola, Kingfisher, SKF, Crown Estates, Cap Gemini, WWF). Both initiatives are based on system-wide collaborations with the objective of systemic shifts in behaviour. Neither used public shaming or exhortation, rather techniques to help participants work out solutions for themselves.
A positive way of side-stepping dysfunctional governance
Brazil is not alone in being profoundly disillusioned with the way government operates – ranging from ‘bureaucratic harassment’ to corrupt practices. But recent mismanagement and profligate spending on the World Cup and the Olympics while so many people are stuck in poverty has led to protests and riots but no real practical solution.
So no wonder the idea of positive deviance went down well! People grabbed it as a strategy for getting on and doing the right thing for sustainability – showing how, rather than just complaining.
Perhaps I was speaking to more sympathetic audiences, but one talk to the most traditional of MBA programmes brought frowns from the Dean, but lots of cheers from his graduates!