Wed, March 03 2010

Look at what works, not what is broken: Positive deviance and bright spots

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

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Filed under:   Nonprofit leadership •

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I had such a nice comment in my last post from Jim Lord. He spoke of the importance of focusing on peaks not valleys.

I’d like to push that concept a step further and talk about positive deviance.

In my book I wrote about Jerry Sternin from Save the Children, whom I had the honor to meet years ago when I lived in Cambodia. Sternin approached problems in a truly innovative way: Rather than focusing on what was wrong in neighboring Vietnam, he decided to look for solutions to change that already existed in communities. He called it “positive deviance,” and it had a huge role in improving childhood health in Vietnam. Instead of spending all his time focusing on the problem of undernourished children, he visited children that were not undernourished and watched closely what their mothers did differently. Then he had these women teach their solutions to other mothers. They were things like adding sweet potato greens to a lunch of rice. In their new book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath tell this story in great detail (and better than I did!), calling this approach “bright spots.”

They write:

You may not fight malnutrition. But if you’re trying to change things, there are going to be bright spots in your field of view, and if you learn to recognize them and understand them, you will solve one of the fundamental mysteries of change: What, exactly, needs to be done differently?

...We need to switch from archaeological problem solving to bright-spot evangelizing. There’s no question that it’s possible to do. Take Jerry Sternin. He came into an environment riddled with failure. The opportunities for analysis were endless. He could have stayed in Vietnam for twenty years, writing position papers on the malnutrition problem. But what he knew was this: Even in failure there is success… These flashes of success - these bright spots - can illuminate the road map for action and spark the hope that change is possible.


Try it. Instead of asking yourself why giving is down, look at which donors gave more this year and find out why. Instead of looking at why an email flopped, look at your last email that performed really well and discover what made it a winner. Instead of asking people in your program why they are failing at times, ask them about when they are succeeding and why.

Spend more time on duplicating what works rather than dwelling on what is broken.

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