Several years ago I heard a speech I still think about, so it must have been a good one. I thought about it again recently when I had a discussion with someone about “benchmarking” – which is when an organization changes its practices to better mirror those of top performers. As the discussion progressed, I asked them if they had ever heard of “positive deviance.” They hadn’t. So I told them this story.
NH Charitable Foundation and Jerry Sternin. Five or six years ago when I attended the annual meeting of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation they had Jerry Sternin, who has since passed away, as a guest speaker. He started his talk that night, as he often did, by saying, “You cannot think your way into a new way of acting, you have to act your way into a new way of thinking.” He then told us how important it was for organizational and community leaders to understand “positive deviance” because it is the best way for groups of people to learn how they can change. It is especially effective when there are problems that people care about and are motivated to improve.
They use the words “positive deviance” to describe the highest performers who excel, stand-out, and deviate most from average performers. The word “deviance” in this case comes from studying standard deviations and looking for the performers who reside in the highest or most “positive” deviance from the norm.
Sternin’s Example – Malnourished Children in Vietnam. Jerry told us about when he and his wife, Monique, were asked to help Vietnam solve a large and worsening nourishment problem for the village children. The Sternins were affiliated with the Save the Children Fund at the time. Vietnam had tried many different ways to get food distributed to the villages, but the children’s health still declined. They needed help and Jerry thought they could use positive deviance to solve the problem.
Four Ds of Positive Deviance. He used this Vietnamese story to teach us about using the 4Ds of positive deviance.
- Define problem. The problem was that more than 60% (I believe) of the village children were malnourished and the percentage was worsening. The political leaders cared about it because these children were the country’s future workforce. The parents cared about it because they wanted healthy children.
- Determine if positive deviance exists. Sternin started their work at the village level, where he met and engaged village leaders. He assumed there were also several healthy children in the village, so he asked the leaders if they knew who these children were. They did.
- Discover practices that help the positive deviants excel. Sternin met with the families of the very healthy children. His team discovered that the mothers of these children followed a very different meal preparation process. The norm in these villages was that the moms would go out into the rice patties and harvest rice, boil it, dump the water, and feed the children good portions of rice generally two times a day. However, the moms of the healthy kids also caught shrimp in the rice patties and cooked the shrimp in the water with the rice. They also added sweet potato greens to the same water. The rice absorbed additional vitamins and nutrients during this process. These moms also fed their children several, smaller quantity meals each day.
- Develop other people’s habits so they can replicate the outcomes of the positive deviants. Sternin and his team taught the village leaders how to teach the families to follow these other practices in meal preparation. The result was a rapid improvement in child nourishment in the selected villages.
Sternin described how positive deviance was being used in several other industries including hospitals, where they were working on reducing the spread of infectious diseases in some hospitals. You can read a more in-depth description in this Fast Company article.
I have been involved with groups of people who have used various forms of this process since and it can be very effective. The key is to clarify the problem, make sure the group of people wants to change, and then guide them to learn how to change. If you find yourself in this kind of leadership situation, I suggest starting with the 4 Ds of positive deviance – you might just find nourishment among the deviants.