A postive approach to change

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 12, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes

For change to stick it’s often a good idea to find where things are working and then figure out how to get those successful behaviours happening where you need them.

I often tell this story, which I’ve read in Switch, to illustrate this positive approach to change.

In the 1990s Vietnam faced a terrible problem: many children in their country were malnourished. The government approached Jerry Sternin, who was as the time working for Save the Children in the USA, to set up an office in Vietnam. Jerry moved his family to Vietnam but when he arrived he discovered that not everyone in the government appreciated his presence. He was told by his sponsor in the Foreign Affairs department that we had 6 months to make a difference.

Now Jerry had read the research and it was clear that big issues such as poverty and water cleanliness were major factors. Jerry put these findings into a bucket he called “true but useless.” He wasn’t about to change poverty or how clean Vietnam’s water was. Instead he embarked on finding examples where things were working.

Jerry set off to visit villages across the country. He asked people whether they knew of families who had children of a healthy weight even though they had access to the same resources as everyone else. And the answer was invariably ‘yes.’ They all seem to know of some families where the kids were doing much better than most. So he visited these families and observed how the mothers fed their children. Over time a pattern emerged. Mothers of children with a healthy weight did four things differently from the rest.

First they fed their children four times a day instead of twice, which was the norm. It was the same amount of food but spread over four meals.

Second the mothers were proactive in feeding the food to their children. Shovelling the food into their mouths instead of setting it in front of them to let them feed themselves.

Third they went to the rice paddies and caught shrimps and and tiny crabs and put them in their children’s food.

And finally they scrounged up other vegetables and added them to the meals.

What happens next illustrates Jerry Sternin’s genius. Instead of racing down the street screaming eureka and advocating everyone with malnourished kids adopt these four behaviours (who adopts ideas from strange foreigners anyway?) Sternin identifies 50 families in 14 villages who could benefit and then takes groups of 10 mothers to cook with the mothers with the healthy kids. They practice together and learn a new way of behaving.

After 6 months 65% of the children were better nourished and stayed that way. Throughout the 90s this approach benefited 2.2 million children in 265 villages and became the standard approach to remedy child malnutrition in Vietnam.

UPDATE: On the weekend I listened to this HBR podcast which has another telling of this story and introduces a new book by Jerry Sternin et al called Power of Positive Deviance

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Hi, I’m now reading switch through your recommendation and I thoroughly enjoy it!

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