175 – Ever heard of “positive deviance”?

Posted on September 30, 2012 by

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It probably is just a further instance of ignorance on my part. I’d never heard of “positive deviance” (PD) as a way to “solve the world’s toughest problems”[1]. The existence of “positive deviance” was noted 25 years ago, and first used as an approach to bring about sustainable change in a community five years later. Meanwhile it has gone “main-stream” and many development agencies use this approach with great success – and little cost. Let me tell you: after having read the book, I feel deeply upset. By showing how it is possible to harness the power of a community in unexpected (and unforeseeable) ways it has overturned many of my “expert” certainties. How pleasant to be shown (once again) wrong.

Development agencies? Oh yes, the (PD) methodology was first developed in a few villages of Vietnam and has gone everywhere in the “Third World”, from helping girl soldiers in Ugandan refugee camps to neo-natal mortality in Pashtun villages. And what about our first world? When I first read about (PD) I sensed a slight defensiveness among the proponents: “This is good for them!” – was the implicit message – “for they have cultural problems of stagnation. We manage to cope and evolve.”

The story begins in Vietnam in 1990[2]. 65% of rural children were malnourished. The government reluctantly called in Save the Children, a US-based NGO. The task was set before the team: within six month develop a strategy to tackle the malnutrition problem. Importing supplementary food from abroad was not feasible and even land reform or the introduction of new crop varieties would take years to yield results – the country just could not let a generation go to waste.

The first step was to hunt for differences in child nutrition in target villages. It was soon discovered that some very poor families[3] had healthy children. They did it by adding paddy shrimp, crab and potato greens to the diet as well as feeding children several times a day small quantities, rather than having them eat only twice a day as adults did. These people were “positive deviants” – they had found a way to solve a problem that had stymied the rest of the village.

The next step was to figure out how to spread the good word throughout the village. The core insight was to make the village adopt the practice as “its own”. Facilitators were employed to help villagers reframe the problem and “self-discover” the new way of feeding children and practice it; as the advantages became obvious through measuring weight increase of the children, the method spread like wildfire within that community.

PD is about getting a community to self-organize to become empowered and finding a local adaptive solution – which is sustainable because it is “disseminated through an infinite number of small adjustments.” (pg. 188) If the community adopts the new way – it makes it part of its local culture – it makes change sustainable and not dependent on priming through outside incentives. This is a living process, so always expect unintended consequences – e.g. it began to bridge the gender divide among the Pashtun (at the dam of mothers-in-law, who had been sidelined in the process).

In the end, over two million children in Vietnam benefited from this cultural change. The authors place a healthy warning concerning the scaling up of the approach: “The conundrum arises when trying to apply “shrimps, crabs and greens” from one Vietnamese village to the next. Without careful attention to the setup (begin with a group decision to opt in to the process and invest sweaty equity in determining their own common practices and discovering uncommon ones), the unfolding pattern quickly defaults to a “best practices” drill. Ownership is absent or insufficient to sustain interest, immune responses are activated, and fleeting curiosity ebbs away.” (pg. 50). In other words – beware of standardization.

A fad? Not in the intention of the authors – who see PD as an approach to be adjusted each time to local conditions. Communities can accept or reject it – so the outcome is always “good enough and less than 100% compliance (which we strive for with “best practice”).

The approach is most likely to succeed when there is “social complexity and there is need for behavioral change.” (pg. 49). The authors have adapted the approach many times. Here a few examples described in the book. They are: (a) female circumcision in Egypt, (b) girl soldiers in Uganda; (c) reduction of MRSA infections in US veterans’ hospitals. They had a successful run in Mexico, with sales teams from Merck. It never caughton elsewhere in the firm: the company is the “classic standard model: socially engineered, top-down, authority driven.” (pg. 138) The PD graft did not take (it worked in the case of the far more loosely structured Goldman Sachs).

Do you think all this is new? At the end of the conclusions the authors quote a Chinese poem:

Learn from the people

Plan with the people

Begin with what theys have

Build on what they know

Of the best leaders

When the task is accomplished

The people all remark

We have done it ourselves

Laozi (6th century BC)


[1]          For further information see http://www.positivedeviance.org/

[2]          Richard PASCALE – Jerry STERNIN – Monique STERNIN (2010): The power of positive deviance. How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems. Harvard Business Review Press, Cambridge.

[3]          This is not surprising, of course. They’ve always had to deal with malnutrition, so they survived on unconventional food. Adaptation, once more, occurs first at the fringes, not within the core.

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