Well-known researchers Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin’s newest book, “The Power of Positive Deviance,” is a great tool for social change.
Even at times of great crises and complex problems, there is at least one person somewhere in a company or a community who has already solved the problem. This person is called the “positive deviant” by the authors. Positive deviants are individuals who live and work under the same constraints as everyone else, yet find a way to succeed against all odds.
The first and very powerful example in the book is the solution to the malnutrition problem of Vietnamese children. One of the authors of the book, Jerry Sternin, arrived in Vietnam as a malnutrition expert, but the welcome was rather chilly. He was supposed to help solve the malnutrition problem. However, as a foreigner and an expert having almost no budget, he had nothing to do. The general conditions in regions where children suffered from malnutrition were dreadful. Although most of the children were dying from malnutrition, a very small percentage was healthy. Jerry Sternin decided to find these children who were positive deviants. If he could understand how these children received proper nutrition, it could be a benchmark for all other children in the region. The mothers of healthy children were cooking rice but adding some sweet potato leaves. The food was not delicious, but it was nutritious. Moreover, when these mothers found some crabs as protein resources, they also added them to the meal. The portions were small but frequent; instead of three times a day, children were having meals six times a day. Therefore, the model was clear; if this type of nutritional information could be disseminated to the mothers of the suffering children, it would cure the problem, but how would he spread this info? Leaflets or flyers wouldn’t work in rural areas, and seminars or conferences would be meaningless. Jerry Sternin figured out that change should start within the community. With the support of some local organizations, he tried to create opportunities where model mothers and the other mothers could gather. All of the mothers talked about the malnutrition problem, and the model mothers cooked rice with sweet potato and shared their success story in these gatherings. In the end, there was a great decrease in malnutrition in the region.
All around the world, there are chronic problems in communities and organizations. The authors claim that the positive deviance approach might help to solve these chronic problems. The theory is simple; there is always a positive deviance statistically. Every city has a rich person who has earned money legally, every country has a very successful student who has succeeded despite facing totally negative conditions. Any company must have at least one successful sales district in spite of harsh competition. In any macro crisis there are always some winners. So, what we have to do is to discover these positive deviants, understand the model and then diffuse the information. The first and second steps are easy. The first step requires research and the second diligent observation. The most difficult step is the diffusion of knowledge. In the Positive Deviance system, for the toughest problems you have to organize people to share information. This might be easier for a company, but more difficult for communities.
“The Power of Positive Deviance” looks like it is a great approach for companies and communities who want to start bottom-up change, not top-down change.