Monday, January 19, 2009

Positive Deviance rules

I'll continue the New Year the way I mean to go on, with praise for the art of curiosity. Curiosity has got to be one of the most exciting and inspiring of human qualities. It’s sure why kids are so fascinating – and not just to their grandparents! I like people who want to know more, people who ask the right questions, people who put two and two together and never simply get four. Without curiosity, innovation and invention would be processes performed by rote rather than explorations that sometimes get to shape our world. The curious can always find a new angle, a new problem, a new solution to play with. Rather than going at a challenge head on, these cats circle round the back and surprise us with the obvious time and time again.

Here’s a great example from the often conservative and rule-bound world of academia. In the general run of things, when researchers study small communities it’s the people who are at risk that occupy most of their attention. Seems like the commonsense way to use your resources best, doesn’t it? If out of a group of 100, 70 are malnourished, the obvious approach is to focus on the 70 and help them get more or better food. Faced with exactly this problem, Jerry and Monique Sternin surprised with the obvious. They headed in the opposite direction and reached profound insights the mainstream missed. Instead of focusing on the malnourished members of the community, for example, they studied why the 30 percent had done so much better. Rather than focus on how to fix the bad, their research dug into how the more successful got to be successful. Using that information they then taught the same skills, attitudes and strategies to everyone in the community.

Jerry Sternin called the process Positive Deviance. It is inspired by the idea that solutions to community problems already exist within that community. You just have to identify them and spread them. No big surprise to learn that the New York Times named it as one of the big ideas of the year. They have taken the technique into business, public health and hospitals where the Sternins and their positive deviants have led to the way to hugely improved hygiene and greatly reduced infection rates. Sternin put it brilliantly, “One of the best ways to solve problems is to think about how we act, rather than acting upon how we think.” Amen to that.