Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Power of Positive Deviance

Solving social problems is tough since they are often intractable and addressing them involves serious behavioural change. Are there techniques that help address such problems?

Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin identified a powerful way during their work for Save the Children, a well known global charity. Starting with trying to reduce child malnutrition in a very challenging timeframe in Vietnam, they found that solutions to such apparently intractable problems already exist, in fact they have been discovered by members of the community itself. These innovators have succeeded even though they face the same obstacles. These innovators can provide the blueprint to solve the problem. But the process of unearthing these innovators is critical to these same innovations being adopted by others.

The trick is to make the process participatory and community-based. In its ideal form, this process involves the community deciding that the problem is serious enough to merit action, choosing to address it, bringing community members together to spend time and effort to discover the pioneering innovators, and disseminating the discoveries through practice. This last point is important - as the authors say, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.” The facilitator’s role is clear: (s)he is not a problem-solver or an expert, but a catalyst who galvanizes the community to address the problem.

The Power of Positive Deviance is a well written book, with detailed and credible examples based on the work of the Sternins. I found the book both inspiring and throught-provoking. It also left me with an important question. Though the Sternins argue that this technique works best when the change is “adaptive” (embedded in social complexity and involving major behavioural change), rather than “technical,” I wonder whether this technique works equally well in all adaptive change situations. Even from the examples given in the book, it seems better suited to moderately adaptive changes (such as the malnutrition problem in Vietnam) than those requiring fundamental behavioural changes (such as female circumcision in Egypt, another case in the book). Nevertheless, the book clearly establishes the power of the positive deviance approach.


  1. I really liked this review, Rishi. You mention that the last point in the process is important i.e. disseminating the discoveries through practice. I felt the first point to be important too i.e. starting the process when community deciding that the problem is important. Essentially it is asking the question: Whose agenda is it to solve the problem? Dr. Abhay Bang who works in the tribal Gadchiroli district in Eastern Maharashtra learnt this the hard way while fighting against sick cell disease. Bang's research was recognized by Govt. However, no concrete action was followed and little interest was shown by the people. Bang mentions, "Sickle cell disease became our (medical) problem, not theirs." The finding and subsequent approach is documented in the following paper: Community participation in research and action against alcoholism, by Abhay and Rani Bang.

  2. Thanks for the review. London and Hart, in their book "Next generation strategies for the base of the pyramid" put forth a similar view. They stress the importance of community-based, participatory process, noting that such 'co-creation' is key to creating value for the business as well as the community it wishes to serve.