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The Power of Positive Deviance: Jerry Sternin, Monique Sternin, Richard Pascale

by Peter Block on July 1, 2010

Tagged as: Association / Cooperation / Safety

Book review by Peter Block

Jerry and Monique Sternin are a couple who have been concerned for the past twenty years or more with the most difficult problems facing modern societies. They have been interested in child malnutrition, sex trafficking, the reintroduction of child soldiers back into their communities, all issues that could not be solved with money or a technical solution. What they understood was they had to impact a social system and shift the norms and practices of communities and neighborhoods.

The news is that they have accumulated a long list of successes in changing the lives of millions of people in these areas. They have done this with a process they call “Positive Deviance.” It is a mixture of finding what is working and organizing regular community members to change practices.   

In the years of caring about these problems and working to make them each better, they have developed a way of thinking and acting that has relevance for anyone who cares about their community and its gifts and capacities. Jerry passed away in the fall of 2009, but luckily, before he died, he, Monique, and Richard Pascale wrote about what they learned and created, which is now in the form of a book.

This is a great book. It tells the stories of dramatic results and how they were achieved. Their thinking and methods are radically simple and so different from what most of us think is necessary to do good.

Here are some core beliefs they bring into every challenge:

Solutions to seemingly intractable problems 1) already exist, 2) have been devised by members of the community itself, and 3) these innovators [people they call Positive Deviants] succeeded despite identical constraints and barriers they share with others” (p. 15).

Positive deviants are people who deviate from the social norms of the community and have solved problems and seen possibilities that other community members do not see. 

The Sternins talk about what is “Invisible in plain sight. Invisible positive deviants often don‘t know what they know (i.e., don’t realize they are doing anything unusual or noteworthy). Living alongside peers, they flourish while others struggle.... Also invisible in plain sight is the community’s latent potential to self organize, tap its own wisdom, and address problems long regarded with fatalistic acceptance. Once discovered by the community, capacity extends beyond addressing the initial problem at hand, often enabling those involved to take control of their destiny and address future challenges” (p. 19).

Here is a simplified version of the process:

  1. They find people not following the conventional thinking and practice. They call this “finding observable exceptions.” In their words, “focus on the successful exceptions not the failing norms….” (p. 3). Are there any children in this village who are healthy? This is in line with looking for the gifts and passions of our neighbors.
  2. Then they organize volunteers to begin looking for more people in the community who are the “positive deviants.” People who have figured something out and gone against the prevailing norms. Usually these deviants do not even know what they know. Which is why they need to be observed, not interviewed.
  3. When they find the exceptions, they invite as many people as possible who care about the issue to a meeting. They show the results achieved elsewhere, take questions, and then invite those interested in the process to show up to a meeting the next day. They only work with people who come the second time. No mandates allowed.
  4. After finding examples of the positive deviants, the Sternins got really radical. They realized that this was the point where most change efforts fail. “All [failures] had occurred exactly at the moment in which we now found ourselves––the moment at which the solution (aka the ‘truth’) is discovered. The next, almost reflexive step was to go out and spread the word: teach people, tell them, educate them …we realized that [failures] occurred because we were acting as though once people ‘know’ something it results in the ‘doing’ something” (p. 35). The result was they did no teaching, no best practices, no PowerPoint presentations of findings.   

Their strategy was to count on the teaching and learning capacities of the regular members of the community. The community members actually decided what approach would work. They together created structures where members of the community shared, demonstrated, and helped others practice what they, the community, knew. In the case of village children, “mothers and caretakers would bring their malnourished children to a neighbor’s house for a few hours every day. Together with a health volunteer, they prepared and fed a nutritious, supplemental meal to their children” (p. 37). This strategy counted on the wisdom and generosity of villagers. It also meant that practicing what works was more powerful than hearing or seeing what works.

More of their words:

“The essential precondition to give learning the best chance is for the community to discover the answer for itself. If this essential work of self discovery is outsourced to experts, no pain, no gain. From the vantage point of the PD approach, the community must decide it has a problem [or possibility, my addition]  serious enough to warrant collective attention, opt in to the activity of addressing it, enroll individual members to invest time and energy in the work of discovering the exceptions, and, later, disseminate discoveries through practice. These are the practices that themselves transform the social system” (pp. 25-26).

“The greatest barrier to the application of the Positive Deviance approach comes not from the members of the community themselves but from the experts who seek to help them and from the authorities who preside over them. The reason traces to deeply ingrained views that the top of a hierarchy knows more than those below, and that change is most efficiently driven top down and outside in. We call this the standard model.  Pervasive throughout the world, it is the primary means through which most people tackle change” (p. 26).

The limitations to changing a culture, in their thinking, are expert based, people making “interventions.” Leaders in government, schools, agencies, and businesses taking responsibility to develop more leaders, training citizens and facilitators to identify gaps, devise initiatives to fill them and create institutions that implement change strategies.

What is so interesting is that they operated without much of what many of us who care about our neighborhoods think is necessary. While many of us are now looking for possibilities, strengths and appreciation, we still have people create visions, talk about a desired future, put out reports and “plan” implementation. Positive Deviance simply introduces citizens to each other and helps them discover what is already working in the community. Period.

Of course there is some expertise in the Positive Deviance process, but it is a very contained and conscious use of expertise. New expertise is developed for each community they work with. The expertise mostly is how to hold off conventional wisdom and how to protect community or institutional leadership from co-opting what is learned. A protective expertise that knows what the first few steps are, but then really invents, each time, how the learning and community building needs to take place.

I recommend this book without reservation. They talk of many other aspects of their experience, like how they dealt with local government, agency leaders and others who start from a very conventional place. The book is also written in a way that parallels its content. The stories are told in a balanced way that honors what went wrong and the challenges in the work. The Sternins usually have gone in as the effort of last resort, which makes their work very credible. And I feel fortunate to both have met them and to have learned from what they made the effort to write down.

~ Peter ~

Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, Monique Sternin. The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2010. More on the book, including a field guide developed by the Positive Deviance Initiative www.positivedeviance.org