What if your largest problem has already been solved?
What if all you needed to do was find the person who is doing it right, and make it easier for them to show others how they do it?
In the field of Organizational Development, some of the things that I routinely stress about are thoughts like:
- “How do we make ideas stick?”
- “Once I create a training program, how do we follow up and make sure that the training is still being executed?”
- “Isn’t there a switch you can just flip to change your company’s culture?”
I know, these are like world peace or solving poverty or hunger issues, right?
That is why I am thrilled to share with you a method that just might have the answer to all the above. Well, the world peace might be a stretch, but the issue of hunger or malnutrition, in this case, is not.
Enter Positive Deviance Man
I’ve mentioned before that Mega Man 2 is my favorite game in the series, and may possibly be one of the best video games of all time. The game is pure fun, but I do recall an impossibly difficult segment of the game, especially the very first time I made it the boss of part four of Dr. Wily’s castle.
I even called the Nintendo hint line because I got stuck here, fighting the end boss. If you have played the game, you know exactly what I am talking about. The stage four boss is made up of mounted cannons in a room full of walls you can destroy.
Walls & wall mounted cannons. Did I really need to call for help on this one?
The cannons can only be dispatched with the Crash Bomb weapon, and the walls guarding them can only be broken by….the Crash Bomb, as well.
So far, so good, right?
The problem is that your weapon use is limited, and you do not have enough to break all the walls and still blast all the cannons.
Meanwhile, the cannons just keep firing away from behind their safe walls. I imagine if they had faces, they would be laughing at me, running around the room, out of Crash Bombs, delaying my inevitable death (though I did gain some good practice figuring out how to dodge their fire pattern, which helped me quite a bit in my future attempts).
I mentioned that I called the Nintendo hint line. Their solution? Blow up all the walls, die, restart the stage, refill the Crash Bomb weapon, then finish off the boss. Fine and good unless you only have one life left, or you are trying to complete the game with one life.
It turns out there is another solution. A deviant one.
When I say deviant, I am defining the word as “departing from the norm,” so get your mind out of the gutter.
I learned a deviation from the typical approach to winning this boss battle, and it requires some strategic uses of items 1 & 3, as well as ignoring a few breakable walls.
But you can win without dying.
Positive Deviance in Action
Back in the 1990’s Jerry Sternin was part of a group called “Save the Children” that sought to help Vietnam deal with the challenge of malnutrition in children among rural villages.
So Jerry, his wife, and their 10 year old son made the trip to see what could be done about this issue.
At this time almost 65% of the children under 5 years of age in Vietnam suffered from malnutrition to some extent. Complex political factors and governmental changes combined with devastating typhoons only made matters worse.
In addition to all these factors, Jerry was even told point blank that there were many who did not even want him in the country, and that he would only have 6 months to produce results. And since the government of the country did not have the resources needed to solve this problem, he would basically need to figure out a solution from within the villages themselves.
And that last apparent “problem” proved to be where the answer was hidden.
Hidden In Plain Sight
When observing the families in the village, Jerry and his group of volunteers made an interesting discovery: even though almost 64% of the children were malnourished, there were children from even the poorest households who were well-nourished.
If even the poorest families could overcome the problem of malnutrition, then it follows that the households who were better off could see the same results. So the big question here was “what did those well-nourished but very poor families do differently?”
In other words, what made them “Positive Deviants” that is different from the rest, in a positive way?
More than just an interview was needed, as those who were Positive Deviants did not even realize that they were doing something different from the rest. These families were carefully observed before, during, and after mealtimes.
The differences were both minimal and significant.
The Positive Deviant families
- Fed their children the sweet potatoes greens that other families treated as garbage
- Fed their children little shrimp, crabs, and snails found in the rice paddies (considered inappropriate by other families)
- Fed their children smaller, more frequent meals
Once the differences were identified, a high-involvement cooking class with plenty of hands-on experience combined with some clever ways to build the habit of collecting the extra ingredients helped the solution stick.
The answer was hidden in plain sight.
Positive Deviance In Your Own Stage
Now look at some of the challenges in your workplace – are there individuals who are successful in the same environment, perhaps even unaware that they are doing something differently in such a way that others could benefit?
Check out the Positive Deviance Website for more case studies, and great tools that you can use to apply the Positive Deviance approach to the biggest problems!
I highly recommend the Positive Deviance Field Guide.