In 1990, Jerry Sternin was sent by Save the Children to fight severe malnutrition in rural communities of Vietnam. The Vietnamese foreign minister, having seen many such “do-gooder” missions in the past, gave him just six months to make a difference. Sternin was well-versed in the academic literature on the complex systemic causes of malnutrition – poor sanitation, poverty, lack of education, etc. He considered such information “T.B.U.” – “True But Useless.” There was no way a strategy focused on changing these deeply rooted issues could see results in six months.
Instead, Sternin used an approach that he would later call positive deviance. He traveled to villages and met with the foremost experts on feeding children:groups of village mothers. He asked them whether there were any very poor families whose children were bigger and healthier than the typical child, even though their families had only the same resources available to all. Hearing that the answer was “yes,” Sternin and villagers set out to discover what the mothers of the healthiest children were doing differently.
They found that the mothers of the healthiest children were indeed doing things differently. First, they were feeding their children smaller portions of food, more often during the day. Second, they were taking brine shrimp from the rice paddies and greens from sweet potatoes grown in their gardens and adding these to their daily soups or rice dishes. They were doing this even though most people avoided these foods, which were stigmatized as “low class.” And third, when serving their children, they were ladling from the bottom of the pot, making sure the kids got the shrimp and greens that had settled during cooking.
Sternin called these families “bright spots” – observable exceptions recognized by their peers as producing results above the norm with only the same kinds of resources available to others. In less than a month, he and the mothers had discovered local practices that were effective, realistic and sustainable. He helped mothers in other villages to study their local bright spots and replicate their behavior. Critical to the success of this process was recognizing that sustainable solutions are already in use, and could be locally sourced by local people. Sternin helped the “bright spot” mothers in numerous villages train others in the most effective practices for their communities. At the end of six months, 65% of the children in the villages where Sternin worked were better nourished.
We are thankful to Jerry Sternin and his co-authors for their book, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, and to Chip and Dan Heath who introduced us to this story in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.