The Sternins’ work is a good example of how positive deviance and design thinking relies on local expertise to uncover local solutions. From Stanford Social Innovation Review.
D E S I G N T H I N K I N G AT WORK Jerry Sternin, founder of the Positive Deviance Initiative and a professor at Tufts University until he died last year, was skilled at identifying what he called outsider solutions to local problems. His approach to social innovation is a good example of design thinking in action.(1) In 1990, Sternin and his wife, Monique, were working in Vietnam to decrease malnutrition among children in 10,000 villages. At the time, 65 percent of Vietnamese children under age 5 suff ered from malnutrition, and most solutions relied on government donations of nutritional supplements. But the supplements never delivered the hoped-for results.(2) As an alternative, the Sternins used an approach called positive deviance, which looks for solutions among individuals and families in the community who are already doing well.(3)
The Sternins and colleagues from Save the Children surveyed four local Quong Xuong communities in the province of Than Hoa and asked for examples of “very, very poor” families whose children were healthy. They then observed the food preparation, cooking, and serving behaviors of these six families, called “positive deviants,” and found a few consistent yet rare behaviors. Parents of well-nourished children collected tiny shrimps, crabs, and snails from rice paddies and added them to the food, along with the greens from sweet potatoes. Although these foods were readily available, they were typically not eaten because they were considered unsafe for children. The positive deviants also fed their children multiple smaller meals, which allowed small stomachs to hold and digest more food each day.
The Sternins and the rest of their group worked with the positive deviants to offer cooking classes to the families of children suff ering from malnutrition. By the end of the program’s first year, 80 percent of the 1,000 children enrolled in the program were adequately nourished. In addition, the effort had been replicated within 14 villages across Vietnam.(4)