Positive Deviance; finding the positive exception

The traditional approach towards problem-solving is analysing the situation thoroughly before generating solutions. Although this route can produce some useful insights and ideas, it often just makes the problem seem more complex. Fortunately, there is a faster and more likeable approach: Positive Deviance.

In Positive Deviance, you zoom in on the positive exceptions. This method doesn’t bother with (often fruitless) attempts to discover the root cause of a problem. Instead, it skips directly to finding a solution. By looking at solutions (instead of problems), strengths (rather than weaknesses) and what’s going well (instead of what’s going wrong), this method is a more positive, empowering and pragmatic way of making progress. After all, the seeds of the solution are almost always already there. All you need to do is identify them, and use them to fix your problem.

Children of Vietnam

In the early 90’s, Vietnam was faced with a nationwide disaster. Because of crop failure and wretched economic conditions, 65% of all children under the age of five suffered from malnutrition. The director of the American NGO ‘Save The Children’, Jerry Sternin, was asked for help. Since time was of the essence, Sternin decided to adopt a slightly unusual research method: Positive Deviance (PD).

Sternin was convinced that the solution was already available. He believed that positive exceptions could always be found, even in the most terrible of circumstances. And he was right. When visiting the villages, he found out there were ‘very, very poor’ families with children at a healthy weight. A breakthrough discovery, proving that in this dire economic situation some people were still able to feed their children to a healthy standard. Sternin made lots of valuable mealtime visits to these households, set on answering that one crucial question: “What are these successful families doing differently?”.

The PD families collected tiny shrimps, small crabs, and snails the size of fingertips, and added these little creatures to their children’s diet along with some greens. Although these elements were freely available to everyone, they were generally seen as unfit and even dangerous for young children.

Another successful and uncommon strategy involved meal frequency. Where on average the Vietnamese children were fed twice a day, the PD families fed their children throughout the day. This way the children could take in many calories during the day, despite their small stomachs.

The rest of the villagers were shown the local solutions and were educated on how to apply these strategies themselves. In addition, they learned the basics of healthcare and nurturing. The programme turned out to be extremely successful. Within two years more than a thousand children were enrolled in the nutrition sessions, and 93% of them ‘graduated’.

Are you paying attention to signs of the solution?

Positive Deviance solutions illustrate perfectly what makes looking for positive exceptions such a powerful method of discovering solutions that are often surprisingly low-tech, cheap and simple.

Just ask yourself: When and where is your problem not occurring? And how come?

If you want to know more about this subject, I urge you to read ‘The Power of Positive Deviance’. This book contains some amazing Positive Deviance case studies and demonstrates why this approach is so amazingly effective.

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