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Positive Deviance

1 April 2021
Lior Cohen

In the early 90’s, approximately 65% of all children under the age of five in Vietnam suffered from malnutrition. On December 1990, members of American charity foundation ‘Save the Children” Jerry and Monece Sternin arrived at the Kong Shwong District and opened a firm to save the Jews. An intensive study which included approximately under the age of three suffering from malnutrition led the researchers to inquire whether there are children from very poor families in the district that are nevertheless sufficiently fed. And the answer was: yes! There are children from poor families that are healthy, though they are few.


Those poor families that successfully evaded malnutrition with no access to special resources raised the question: what did these families do that others did not? To find out, community members visited the homes of six of the poorest families with well fed children in each of the district’s villages. The inspection revealed the solution: the family members collected small shrimps and crabs from the dust fields and added them to their children’s meals. These dishes are known to contain protein and minerals. Furthermore, the family members made sure to add sweet potatoes, which contain essential nutrients, to their children’s meals.


What was furthermore revealed was that these shrimp and sweet potatoes were available to everyone, yet most community members believed that they aren’t appropriate for young children. Furthermore, these mothers fed their children smaller meals three of four times a day rather than two large ones as is customary among most families in the district. They also fed their children actively rather than placing it before them and made sure that no food goes to waste.


What is a Positive Deviance?

Access to social and behavioural change is based on the assumption that every community has members that through uncommon, yet effective strategies or behaviour enable them to find solutions to problems better than others, despite handling similar challenges and possessing resources or knowledge similar to those of their friends.


The efficiency of the Positive Deviance

As professional functionaries in organizations we often provide solutions based on our knowledge and experience, as well as on studies, similar success stories, etc. while in most cases someone in the organization already holds the solution to this challenge. All we need to do is track them down and copy their behaviour to handle complex challenges in the organization.

In this method the solution is attained optimally since it is a proven solution for the appropriate population. It doesn’t require additional, special resources beyond what currently exists in said population. It doesn’t require long, complex planning as it arrives already ‘sealed’ and proven.


That said, the method’s great advantage lays in one of the most powerful influence on people: the ‘Social Proof’ component. Social Proof is the human tendency to act as a result of other members of society acting some way. When a certain malfunction of shortcoming is so deeply carved in a substantial portion of society, the greatest obstacle is generating trust in the solution and commitment to the process on said workers’ behalf. The Social Proof component pushes our target audience to adopt uncommon behaviour due to it being implemented by other individuals in the organization.


If we generate sharing and engagement among our target audience by reviewing success stories and getting them to practice these solutions in the most experiential way, we can incorporate them into the process and substantially promote the solution in their units as well.


Back to Vietnam

Parents to children suffering from malnutrition gathered at the fields to observe how the families that manifested a positive deviance acted. They began to go out to the rice fields daily and collected tiny shrimp and crabs and sweet potato plants. They learned how to cook and prepare different food using methods that were new to them. Malnutrition subsequently dropped by 85% in 14 of the first communities to adopt the method. During the following years, the positive deviance method became a national program in Vietnam that assisted more than 2.2 million people, including more than 500,000 children’s nutritional status improving.

How to accomplish this in your organization?


  1. Detect your knowledge fields and critical activities

  2. Search for the teams that produce the best performances in these areas (best sales team, best service team, safest factory, most engaged team, fastest production, lowest resource consumption, etc.)

  3. Learn from them proactively, using interviews, surveys, etc. to understand the secret to their success.

  4. Share their success with the rest of the organization and challenge others to provide similar results


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