Positive Deviance: Outliers who found solutions
In facing a tough social challenge, we look for any outliers who may be like everyone else but who found a solution through their successful behavior. The Positive Deviance Collaborative defines these outliers as “individuals, groups, or entities who are the least likely to prevent or overcome a widely shared problem but are successful despite facing the same or worse challenges and barriers. They have access to the same or fewer resources than other colleagues, peers, or entities.”
The classic example of positive deviance involves Jerry Sternin’s 1990 trip to Vietnam for Save the Children. He was given just six months to create a program that addressed inadequate diets of children in villages where 65 percent of them were malnourished.
Using the positive deviance model, Sternin and his team surveyed the health of the children in the targeted villages and found some “very very poor children” who were nevertheless well nourished—positive deviants.
They explored deeper with six of these families and found that their parents were gathering small shrimps, snails, or crabs in the rice paddies and adding them, along with greens, to the same meal the other children ate. These “deviant” families also fed their children three or four times a day instead of the traditional two. Yet these simple (and free) practices were available to all families.
With the six-month clock ticking, the Sternin team called the village leaders and volunteers together….and did something different. “We have all learned many valuable secrets about how to have a well-nourished child despite poverty… over the past two months,” he said. “But we don’t know the best way to help people practice them. What should we do?”
Within a couple of weeks, the village leaders had developed a roll-out plan, their way, for their community’s unique challenge. By the end of the year, most of the thousand children in the program had visible improvement. The approach worked, thanks to engaging invested stakeholders in the solution and making them “the heroes.”
In facing a tough social challenge, positive deviance tells us to look for any outliers who may be like everyone else but who found a solution through their successful behavior.
Arvind Singhal, teaches about Positive Deviance at the University of Texas at El Paso. In facing a tough social challenge, positive deviance tells us to look for any outliers who may be like everyone else but who found a solution through their successful behavior.