Positive Deviant

Positive deviants are individuals or groups that have adopted new mindsets and skillsets to create value in a way that can be held up as an example for others to follow.

The story goes back to the 1990’s. After several years of trying to launch nutrition programs in Vietnam, Save the Children finally found a government official who would let them into the country. But there was a caveat to the invitation. If they could not demonstrate success quickly, the invitation would be withdrawn.

The directors of this program, Jerry and Monique Sternin, knew that if they applied their traditional teaching model, they would fail. In that model, instructors were sent to teach villagers about nutrition. This process would have to be repeated over several years to see a significant change in behavior.

But they had only months to demonstrate a significant impact.

With little to lose, they chose a radical new path, one that had been piloted back in the 70’s by a pediatrician at a Boston hospital. This was a model of positive deviance.

They went into the villages not as authorities, but as learners. They asked the villagers what they were feeding their families and observed the relative heights of their children. They then went back to the families with taller children – those with better nutrition – and explored the diet and gardening practices more deeply. They then asked the families if they would be willing to share these practices with the other villagers.

Not only did the other villagers quickly adopt these nutritional practices, they began to share best practices in other areas of their lives, like home construction. Transformational change happened quickly, with a profound impact on their community.

I started using the model of positive deviancy when I was a marketing consultant for Tektronix and then applied it to work I was doing leading innovation initiatives at the Portland Police Bureau. It became a key component in our strategy for reimagining education, using Dayton as a positive deviant for others.

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