What is Positive Deviance?

Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges. The Positive Deviance approach is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables the community to discover these successful behaviors and strategies and develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned.- The Positive Deviance Institute

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The Basic Premise

The basic premise of Positive Deviance is the following,

  • Solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist
  • They’ve been discovered by members of the community itself
  • These innovators, have succeeded even though they share the same constraints and barriers as others.
When should we consider PD and why?

When we’re faced with a seemingly intractable problem that just seems to have no solution. Or when externally imposed solutions or top down solutions fail to make an impact.

There’s a pragmatic tribe called the Mocua in the Mozambique, who have a saying “The faraway stick does not kill the snake.” Positive Deviance is all about a solution that worked for someone in your midst, someone like us, that shared the same set of problems and constraints in resources. And not someone in a different part of the world with access to a different set of resources. Sometimes the last thing a problem needs is an outside consultant or expert coming in with a ‘one size fits all’ solution that just does not fit here. PD is all about discovering the closest stick and using it.

Implementing Positive Deviance

Identify, Discover, Disseminate

When you see a huge problem and you’re figuring out how to apply PD to it, start by identifying someone within that population that seems to have solved it or escaped the effects of the problem. Thats the identify part. Once you’ve identified that positive deviance group, you study them and their processes, to discover what is it that makes them successful. Involve the commmunity once you’ve found out what makes the difference. Then allow the community to see it first hand, experience it first hand. It is key that the community be allowed to make the discovery itself without being told by an expert or a manager or a government official that they must do X, Y and Z.

How PD helped combat malnutrition in children in Vietnam

In 1990, the US NGO Save the Children (SC) received an unprecedented invitation from the Government of Vietnam to create a program that would enable poor villages to solve their all pervasive problem of childhood malnutrition. Jerry and Monique Sternin travelled to Hanoi to take up this challenge. In prior years, the area had received aid in the form of food but there was no attempt made to find out what was causing the malnutrition or how to change the behaviors that cause the malnutrition, in the first place. The aid agencies came, fed and left. Their first day in the country, they met up with the head of the government agency that had invited them over and told that they had six months to show a difference, else their visas would not be extended. It was a chilling start to a daunting task, that many before them had failed at.

After meeting with different government officials they realized understand that any solution that was not Vietnamese. Most of the officials had been in the American War as they called it in Vietnam. There was a lot of resentment that the Americans were even there. In the 4 villages they chose to pilot the program, 63% of the children under 3 were malnourished. Once the community got together, it was collectively agreed that they needed something that could continue with only local resources to rely on, even after the aid agencies had left. Then volunteers from villages, assisted the researchers in going around the 4 villages, weighing the children and documenting their age. They also documented the socio economic status of the families living in the villages.

Once this was done, the first step towards using PD was taken. The question, ‘are there are any kids from very poor families, that are well nourished?’ was asked. The volunteers were very happy to report that there were a few such cases. Then followed the question, “Do you mean that its possible for a very very poor child in this village to be well nourished?’. The answer was a strong yes. That was an important moment, the Aha moment when the volunteers realized that they someone in their midst had solved the problem. They did not need outside experts to find a solution, some of their own had found it already!

The volunteers and the researchers then started observing six of the families that had well nourished children even though they were very poor. The task before them was to discover what these families were doing differently that enabled their children to get the nourishment they needed. The in person observation was necessary because some of the families were doing things without realizing them and thus not reporting them. For instance, one of the mothers said she washed her daugther’s hands before a meal. But in reality, she was doing more than that. She washed her daugther’s hand, after she touched their pet, after she came back from playing, after she went to the bathroom etc etc. These were things that were not normal in the group they were observing. Some other behaviors were noticed too. The PD kids, were being fed small crabs and shrimps that were at the time thought to be dangerous for kids. They were also being fed 4-5 times a day, rather than the usual 2 times a day. Through their inquiries and observations, they were able to document not just what is being differently but also the why.

Through the PD inquiries, the community members had discovered themselves discovered what it took for a poor family to have a well nourished child! But how could the researchers ensure that this discover would now become part of their day to day habits and get practiced automatically? Traditionally, telling people what was the right thing to do or even teaching them what to do was not a 100% effective. Seeing trumps hearing, but doing trumps hearing! They realized they had to design a way for families to do these new activities and experience the results first hand. They met up with local leaders, volunteers, caretakers etc etc to find out the best way of getting their learnings into people’s homes, into their daily habits. The idea they came up with was 2 week long sessions that participating families would go over to a neighbour’s house and be part of a joint cooking session, led by a volunteer from the same village. They got to practice new recipes and sanitation methods as part of this session. The sessions slowly picked up in popularity.

Its easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.

As part of the admission to the weekly sessions, each caretaker or parent had to come with a handful of shrimps and crabs or greens. So, by the time the two week session got over, the trip to the rice paddy with a small net and a container had become routine. A focus on practice rather than knowledge was the key to bringing on lasting behavioral change. Another great reinforcer of behavioral change was the ability of people to see results. All children were weighed on the first and the last day of the two week session. 75% of the kids put on weight. Each weighing was greeted with applause and cheers. In 6 months, 40% of the original list of malnutrished kids were completely rehabilitated! Within 2 years, a 1000 children were enrolled in these programs and 93% of them “graduated”. Conventional wisdom about how to care for kids had changed and was no internalized. When those families had their next child, they just naturally continued practicing what they’d learnt for their elder siblings. Sustainiability of the nutritional gains looked like they were here to stay and there was no further need for assistance within the community.

The program did not stop there. They formed a Living University that was built with volunteers from the original villages that participated in the program. New participants would come in for sessions and then go back and teach it in their own villages. They became their own “Mini Living University” for further program expansion in adjacent areas. Over the next seven years, an estimated fifty thousand children were rehabilitated through the efforts of more than four hundred Living University graduate teams.

A reflection

PD is an approach, not a model. The leader must merge into the background and let the team, the community own the discovery and the solution. That way, by spending time and effort on arriving at the solution, the community becomes committed to the solution. They become the change agents for the solution. That’s also why an experts advice are disregarded so easily - no pain, no gain. Also, keep in mind that what works in one team or in one community need not necessarily work in another. Each community must opt in to the process and discover its own wisdom, for the discoveries to gain traction.

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