In 1991, Jerry Sternin headed to Vietnam. His goal: to fight child malnutrition in poor villages and produce results within six months.
Sternin began by talking with impoverished families that had somehow avoided malnutrition. He learned that these families gathered tiny shrimps and crabs from paddy fields and added them (along with sweet potato greens) to their children’s meals.
These items were available to everyone, but many adults deemed them inappropriate to feed to youngsters. Families with healthier children also fed their kids three to four times a day, rather than the prevailing custom of twice a day.
Sternin encouraged all families to follow the same practice. This led to a dramatic reduction in malnourished children.
Applying the principle of “positive deviance,” Sternin isolated the few people who were modeling problem-solving behavior when most of their peers were following negative patterns. He thus discovered what the “positive deviants” (PD) did to produce such superior results.
Finally, Sternin taught village leaders to replicate what the PDs did. This led to a “new normal,” replacing a status quo where most people perpetuated child malnutrition.
Use “positive deviance” to develop and promote best practices in a struggling organization. Look at what the handful of top performers do that differentiates them from the pack—and implant their habits or behaviors on everyone else.
Sternin, who died in 2008, liked to say, “You cannot think your way into a new way of acting, you have to act your way into a new way of thinking.”
— Adapted from “Using Deviant Behavior to Change Outcomes,” Steve Wood.
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