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Have you heard of positive deviance?

May 13, 2008

Positive deviance is a relatively new field of research. The main body of work is coming from a married couple, Jerry and Monique Sternin. The basic idea is to make sustainable and rapid change in difficult contexts by looking for what IS working as opposed to analyzing the problem and coming up with proposals from outside the immediate context. It arose when the Sternins were commisioned to work against starvation in Vietnam. They needed reals solutions, real fast. They decided to look at a small majority of kids and families that seemed to be beating the odds. As they studied these ‘positive deviants’ they discovered they were engaging a few crucial but simple behaviors that others were not like feeding their kids even when they had diarrhea, feeding their kids smaller meals more frequnently, and washing their hands more. As they discerned these simple practices they encouraged and taught others in the villages to mimic these beahaviors. Through this simple process they were able to save thousands of lives. 

There’s a great article in Fast Company that stretches this research into business but I’m wondering what the implications would be for testing it in fields like spiritual formation, leadership development and urban ministry. There are so many things I like about this methodology. Seeing and amplifying the good (Barnabas approach, Acts 11,13), trusting that the answers to difficult challenges are already IN the context, and outsiders are in a servant role (servant leadership).

Are you a positive deviant in your context? Monk up!


5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2008 12:50 pm


    I think you are of the same generation as me and I think the “Experiencing God” mentality is a sort of positive deviance.

    That is, where is God working go join him.

    I do that a lot in my context. God, what are you already doing? I’d rather do that than try to start new fires… I think of being out camping and how much easier it is to keep a fire going than to get one started.


  2. BOb permalink
    May 13, 2008 1:15 pm


    For years I struggled to “apprehend that which had apprehended me” and experience the transformation, peace and joy promised in the Bible. It seems every sermon you hear devotional you pick up promises transformation in “just a few minutes a day”.

    But then I started to look at the spiritual giants who had gone before, the mystics and monks, and found the disciplines of silence, solitude, and meditation. After a year or so, I find “hey, that works”.

    Now my eyes are opened to what God has going on around me because I regularly set aside time for reflection on it. I don’t chase after what seems “hot” or successful in “ministry”. I listen to the small-still voices that frequently start as irritations and yet blossom into blessings.

    They say if you want to lose weight, you should eat right and exercise. But no one wants to do that–give me a pill I could take instead.

    They also say, if you want a relationship with God, pray and fast. But again, no one wants to do that.

  3. May 14, 2008 11:16 am

    Kev, your onto something here… can’t wait to see it unfold.

  4. May 27, 2008 4:30 am

    Have you read “Appreciate Inquiry” or “Strengthfinders 2.0 ” same theory I think.


  1. Praxis Podcast » Blog Archive » Episode #19 Kevin talks about Positive Deviance Part 1

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