The power of positive deviance

The power of positive deviance

powerHow unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems (2010)
By Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin


Think of the toughest problems in your organization or community. You have tried all ways to solve it but it still failed. What if they’d already been solved, and you didn’t even know it?


I like this book for its inspiring and real life stories in which the authors reveal how they turn conventional ideas about problem-solving upside down and there is a counterintuitive new approach through “positive deviants” – get the few individuals in a group who manage to find unique ways to look at and have already overcome the “seemingly” problem.


A village in Vietnam had widespread problems of malnutrition among the children due to poverty. Jerry and Monique Sternin were given the task to reduce malnutrition within 6 months. They went to villages in trouble and got the villagers to help them identify who among them had the best nourished children – who among them had demonstrated what Jerry Sternin termed a “positive deviance” from the norm. The villagers then visited those mothers at home to see exactly what they were doing.


The villagers discovered that there were well nourished children among them, despite the poverty. The children’s mothers were breaking with locally accepted wisdom in all sorts of ways – feeding their children even when they had diarrhoea, giving them several small feedings each day rather than one or two big ones, adding sweet-potatoes greens and tiny shrimps or crabs which can be easily caught from the rice paddies to the children’s rice even though they were considered to be low-class food. These ideas spread and took hold. In 2 years, malnutrition dropped from 65% to 85% in every village the Sternins had visisted. Their program proved more effective than those of outside experts.



Before the positive deviance process can begin, the first step is to identify a sponsor , assembling those who might potentially be interested in tackling an intractable problem. Invite others who are willing, and at times, eager to become involved.

Basic steps :

1. Define the problem and desired outcome

Involve members of the community in generating or reviewing data that measure the magnitude of the problem. List common barriers and challenges, explore issues impacting the problem. Create or use baseline data, establish a time-framed goal known and agreed on all.


2. Determine the common practices

Conduct discussions with various groups in the community to learn about common practices and normative behaviors. Continue on “focus groups”.


3. Discover uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies through inquiry and observation.

Identify individuals, families or entities in the community who exhibit desire outcomes. Establish exclusion criteria, select only those individuals who face the same or worse challenges and barriers as others. Conduct in-depth interview and observations by the community and facilitors. Vet the results with the whole community.


4. Design an action learning initiative based on the findings.

Expand the solution space by engaging multiple stakeholders in applying the discovered existing positive deviance behaviors and strategies. Start small to demonstrate success. Connect people who haven’t connected before. Target the widest range of appropriate community members. Create opportunities to practice and “learn through doing” in a safe environment with peer support example feeding workshops in Vietnam and Healthy Baby Fairs in Pakistan.




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