Can Positive Deviance identify successful outliers in the music industry?

August 6, 2010 Off By Eric Jensen

Positive Deviance (PD) is an approach to problem-solving that has proven to be highly effective at facilitating systemic social change in situations that appear hopeless or intractable. The basic idea is simple: focus on the successful exceptions, not the failing norm. In their fascinating book, The Power of Positive Deviance – How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems authors Jerry Sternin. Monique Sternin, and Richard Pascale, present case studies describing applications of PD including; arresting the epidemic of childhood malnutrition in Vietnam, reducing the practice of female circumcision in Egypt, and decreasing infection rates in US hospitals.

“The basic premise is this: (1) Solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist, (2) they have been discovered by members of the community itself, and (3) these innovators (positive deviants) have succeeded even though they share the same barriers and constraints as others.” The Power of Positive Deviance, Harvard Business Press, Boston MA 2010 

PD is a ‘bottom up’ approach driven by the community itself. Facilitators do not act as experts but ask the questions that will help the community identify its own successful outliers. Once the community has discovered how its own members are able to succeed against all odds, they can scale these solutions and integrate them into their culture.

While the music industry is much too eclectic and broad to apply this approach unilaterally, it occurs to me that a PD perspective can be helpful in identifying successful trends. Clearly, the DIY dream will not replace the traditional record industry, but nonetheless, individual success stories can scale across specific industry segments. Professional musicians continually adapt their career models to accommodate disruptive changes in technology and business.

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