Positive deviation, a change methodology with exceptional results

Positive deviation is a way of changing based on observation. Basically, it consists of studying those who achieve exceptional results with the same resources.

The positive deviation approach is totally different from traditional ways of stimulating performance improvement in any area.

How positive deviation solved a malnutrition problem

We are going to tell you a story in this post to illustrate what positive deviation is:

Jerry Sternin, a student at Tufts University, went to Vietnam in 1990 to work for “Save the Children” on a programme to reduce child malnutrition in rural areas.

There were dozens of international studies explaining why child malnutrition was prevalent: poverty; lack of hygiene; restricted access to water; parents with excessively long working days; and little local culture on nutrition, among other causes.

After spending time in one of the villages, Sternin and his wife realized that not all the children were malnourished. Where was the difference?

The healthiest children ate four smaller plates of rice a day instead of two larger ones. The rice was also mixed with a river crustacean and some green leaves that could be found in the rice fields.

These mothers were providing a meal that had carbohydrates (rice), protein (crabs and shrimps), and vitamins (the leaves).

The same thing happens in organizations:

there are people and/or teams that with the same resources obtain exceptional results.

When he discovered this, Sternin organized a village meeting so that the families that fed their children the best could share their secret with the other families.

The next step was to ensure that these good practices were spread. Each volunteer would invite 8 to 10 mothers to their home to educate them on nutrition. In exchange, the mothers had to bring a contribution of shrimps, crabs and leaves. The volunteers and mothers then used these ingredients, along with the rice, to cook a meal for the entire group. Subsequent studies showed that 65% of the children who participated in the programme were better nourished.

Learning from good practices, positive deviation

How can child malnutrition be solved? It seems a very complex problem. How, for example, can you improve performance and motivation, or any other problem you have in your organization? That may seem just as complicated, but the malnutrition issue was resolved by focusing on the good practices of others. That is positive deviation.

Positive deviation is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose unusual practices allow them to find better solutions to problems than their neighbours or colleagues, despite having access to the same resources.

Companies and institutions around the world are turning to positive deviation

The Sternins helped institutionalize positive deviation as a change methodology and approach, demonstrating its effective application. First with child malnutrition. Then, applying it to complex problems of business management, HR, public health, education and security.

Over time, positive deviation has steadily gained more and more importance and academic prestige. Today, this change methodology is used by institutions and organizations all over the world such as the World Bank and the US Ministry of Health. With exceptional results, such as a 20% reduction in the number of smokers in New York state prisons, for example.

People tend to focus more on the negative than the positive. When a problem arises, we ask ourselves what has gone wrong.

A much more effective approach is to ask ourselves what works and how we can replicate it. That is, focus on what is working. For example, in Sales, learning from the best experiences of each salesperson.

How is the change produced?

The change begins when you investigate how these exceptional results are achieved with those same resources; this is shared and learned throughout the organization.

It is not about someone outside discovering the positive deviation and explaining to others what they should do. The key is that the team itself is the owner of the change process, from the phase of inquiry to the adoption of new behaviours and actions. Of course, the ideal is that they travel this path supported by a team of experts in facilitating the change.

Positive deviation in Madavi

Positive deviation is one of the change methodologies we use at Madavi, along with others such as Appreciative Inquiry, which is our main methodology to “change the way we change”.

We also use the following with excellent results: the Expansive Circle, a Madavi methodology that generates action in the team; Conversations Worth Having, that is, those conversations that you leave with more energy than you entered and with more ideas on how to be successful; SOAR, working on Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results, instead of the classic SWOT; Focus on the Solution and Thinking Partner, a methodology that facilitates of reflection and co-creation in work teams.


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