Positive deviance and thriving communities

Why should you pay attention to the outliers in your organization who are thriving despite few resources? The story of a Vietnamese village shows why paying attention to positive deviants can create lasting change, even in seemingly impossible situations.

A recent New York Times article described how, when Jerry and Monique Sternin moved to Vietnam in 1990 from the Philippines, they discovered that two-thirds of the children were malnourished. A former director of Save the Children, Jerry had just finished reading “Positive Deviance in Nutrition,” in which Tufts University professor Marian Zeitlin describes how some poor children thrive even in situations where most are malnourished.

Taking up Zeitlin’s suggestions, the Sternins studied poor village children who seemed well-nourished. Interviewing these “positive deviant” families, the Sternins discovered that these parents ignored the local wisdom that an adult diet was harmful for children.

Instead, these parents deviated from the norm and fed their children shrimp, tiny crabs and sweet potato greens. Also against local custom, they fed children when they had diarrhea and washed their hands before eating.

While most social change practitioners are outsiders coming in with their own “best practices,” the Sternins knew that practices internal to the community, not outsider knowledge, changes behavior. They convened the villagers to discuss how best to spread these deviant activities. Within months, more than 40 percent of the children participating in the program were well-nourished.

The Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts University says that the positive deviance approach 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.”

How might Christian institutional leaders utilize positive deviance? Who are the outliers in our churches, seminaries and other institutions who are thriving despite a lack of resources such as big money or big membership? What are their practices and activities, and how might we learn from them?

The positive deviance approach assumes that a community can:

  • Look to its own members for models of success.
  • Focus on strengths, not weaknesses.
  • Design its own way to spread new behaviors.
  • Allow those on the front lines to come up with the solutions.
  • Let local leaders monitor their community’s success.

Congregations, denominations and other institutions can benefit from reflecting on these guidelines.

But the approach can be threatening to leaders who are used to being in charge or at the top. Taking positive deviance seriously means we need to identify and listen to those at the front lines of the work. In addition, it can be a hard approach to sell and fund, because you can’t predict the solutions: they come as a part of the process. This kind of ambiguity is difficult, but right in line with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paying attention to those who deviate from the norms of our communities in positive ways can help create environments in which all can thrive.