Jerry Sternin’s “Positive Deviance” talk

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At Linkage’s Organizational Summit 2003 in Chicago.

OK, so I met Mr. Sternin during an earlier lecture. I was doing the big-time consultant show off thing, and he was real gracious not to just tell me I was full of shit. Which I was. Here I was, trying to “look good” in front of someone I thought was just this guy, when he’s the real deal, someone who has made a real difference in the world. (He’ll say it was really a team effort, but Sternin is the leading force behind Vietnamese children not starving to death.) And he was so incredibly gracious about my conceit. If that’s not a kick in the mouth, I don’t know what is. The fake is all puffed up while the real deal is sitting there as an interested participant, one amongst equals.

Anyways, he gave a great four-hour seminar on positive deviance where most of the people didn’t get it, partly because we are so focused on providing our own solutions to our clients instead of finding solutions within them.

Positive Deviance does seem to fly in the face of common sense. Instead of bringing ideas from outside, let the organization or society find the answer within itself. It doesn’t always work, of course, but it works more often than I as a big-time consultant who is so full of conceit would like to admit. And a lot more than bringing outside ideas in does, as in the common consulting model. “While you are there, things improve, but as soon as you leave, things revert back to the baseline”, Sternin told Fast Company. “Nothing has changed. The solutions are yours. The resources are yours. When you leave, everything else leaves with you.”[1] He may have been talking about helping the poor in Vietnam, but the principle covers all interventions.

The trick is to find those within the population that have solved the problem, that have a deviated from the norms that aren’t working. (Hence the name, positive deviance.) These deviants have the solution that works under the current situation, that doesn’t have to wait on major infrastructure changes, although those must be pursued. These deviants get better results with exactly the same resources. That’s the kicker: they aren’t the wealthy or those with connections. In Vietnam, the mothers who had the least malnourished children were often even more impoverished than their non-deviant neighbours.

The issue is our lack of humility as consultants. We think that we have to have the answer, that the client is paying me to be an expert. In fact, the client is paying me to help them find their own solution, to overcome some obstacle. As such, it is not as a god but as a companion, one who helps them see what they need to do.


1 Fast Company article from December 2000 that gives a great overview on Sternin’s ideas and work. “The traditional model for social and organizational change doesn’t work,” says Sternin, 62. “It never has. You can’t bring permanent solutions in from outside.”Positive Deviance website has some very interesting materials.

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