One of the most important stories a leader can tell is one that provides insight on how to tackle problems in new ways. I call them intervention stories and some of the very best ones are from outside the business world. In fact, if you look back on the stories we’ve already shared on this podcast you will see most are set outside the world of work yet make a good business point.
A good intervention story gives you a process for doing something differently. You can have all the goals you like, but unless you have a process to achieve those goals you’ve got nothing. In addition to the process a good intervention story inspires action.
I first read this story in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. It’s set in Vietnam in the 1990s and the protagonist sets out to tackle a systemic and tragic problem of country-wide childhood malnourishment. It doesn’t get more difficult that this.
The approach is called Positive Deviance or Bright Spots. You can find more about this approach on wikipedia or from the book Jerry Sternin co-authored.
Pascale, Sternin, & Sternin. (2010) The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Harvard Business Press.
Tags: change, culture, leadership
Back in the 1990s in Vietnam.
Many children were malnourished.
Government approached Jerry Sternin who was running Save the Children
Jerry came to Vietnam and set up a Save the Children office
Discovered however he wasn’t as welcomed as he imagined he would be and was only given a 6 month visa.
Got started. He knew well the big issues such as poverty and water cleanliness. But put these into the category of true but useless. He couldn’t change them.
Started at a micro level at the village.
For each village he would ask the village leaders “Are there children here at a healthy weight? But not kids with access to special resources.”
The leaders invariably said yes.
“OK, I would like you to observe what the family does that’s different to the other families,” Sternin would say.
The village leaders reported back that there were a few things they noticed that were different:
Mother would go the the rice paddies and find shrimps and crabs and add them to the kids’ meals.
If the children were unwell they would make sure they kept feeding their kids.
There is a plant that we typically don’t eat but the successful families prepared and cooked this plant and added it to meals.
Sternin then asked these leaders how could they transfer what the successful parents knew with the parents with the malnourished children.
One village decided they would get the mothers to cook together. So they set up a hut and organised these joint cooking sessions where there was lots of talking and storytelling and laughter.
At the same time Jerry Sternin was weighing the kids.
Over 6 months about 70% of the children were brought up to healthy weight and maintained it.
The government was excited so they asked Sternin to roll out the solution across Vietnam.
But Sternin pushed back and said they it couldn’t be merely rolled out. Rather this same process must be repeated in each village.
He gets his visa extended and starts to repeat the process in more villages.
Jerry Sternin is there for 10 years and in the process makes a difference to 2.2 million children across Vietnam and changes the way the country tackles child malnourishment.
This is Anecdotally Speaking, a podcast to help build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.
And I’m Mark Schenk.
And welcome back to another episode of Anecdotally Speaking. Wasn’t it exciting to have our chairman here last week to talk to us about one of his stories?
Yeah, it was great. We’d talked about having guests and it was good to execute that and I think we should do more of it.
So, we’re now talking to some of our customers and we’re going to get them up as guests and I think you’ll enjoy some of the stories they’ll tell ranging across all different industries. I think that’s going to be a fascinating element of it—see if there are any patterns that keep repeating through this.
Today I’ve got a type of story that I’m really fascinated with; I would call it the intervention story. The idea behind the story is that it helps other people work out, ‘O.K. I could tackle that project that way’.
I told this story just a couple of days ago. I was at a big construction company and they were looking at culture change projects that they needed to do, and they wanted to do it a different way. So, I said to them, ‘look there was some really interesting work that was done in the 90’s. Perhaps I can share that example and spark some ideas on how we might tackle this project.’
So, I told them the story of Jerry Sternin and his work in Vietnam. You know this one well, don’t you?
I do indeed—the bright spots theory.
That’s it—bright spots; the idea of focusing on the positive rather than looking for problems to solve.
Bright spots; it’s also called positive deviance. For all our listeners it’s deviance with an ‘ance’ not ‘ants’.
Yeah, positive deviance. It all started back in the 90’s. Vietnam was facing a problem across the entire country with malnourished children. It was a devastating problem. It was probably a flow-on from the Vietnam War, a whole range of things going on where kids were just underweight.
The government decided to do something about it, so they put out feelers and found Jerry Sternin who was running the charity Save the Children in the Philippines at the time and they asked him to move over to Vietnam and start up a Save the Children branch there. He took his family over and set it up but when he got there he found out he wasn’t all that welcome. He came on a 6-month visa. I guess they didn’t want Americans coming in and telling them what to do—who could blame them, right?
He’d done the research. He knew what the big issues were around poverty, water cleanliness but he put that into the category of true but useless. He could not change that. He couldn’t make a change to water cleanliness or any of those sorts of things.
So, he said, ‘we’ve got to start at a much more micro level—let’s get down to the village level.’ He started off with just a handful of villages. For each village he would go in and say to the village leaders, ‘do you have any examples of where kids are actually at their healthy weight? And I don’t want children who have got a rich uncle or some extra resources available to them but just your standard families’.
‘Oh, of course, we have those sorts of kids’. And he said, ‘I want you to check out what do they do differently than the kids who are not doing so well and are underweight?’ They came back and this pattern started to emerge around this first set of villages.
First of all, they noticed their mothers would go down to the rice paddies and find little crabs and shrimps and bring them up and put them into the food. It wasn’t the normal thing that was done.
Secondly, if the children were ill they kept shovelling food into them. That didn’t stop them from feeding their children. And thirdly, there was a plant that was regarded as a weed and the mothers who were doing well with their children worked out how to cook this plant and they would add it in for extra nutrients.
So, there was a series of small things that they were doing that was making this difference. Jerry Sternin got the leaders together again and said, ‘why don’t we work out what would you do to help the mothers who are not doing so well learn from the mothers who are?’
And one of the answers was, ‘why don’t we get them to cook together?’ So, they set up this hut, they’d do a lot of cooking, have lots of conversations and stories told and they were having fun doing it. And at the same time, they were weighing the children and over a 6-month period some 70% of the children were brought up to a healthy weight and most importantly maintained that weight.
At this point they had this positive result and the government said, ‘Oh this is great. Why don’t we roll this out?’
Cancel his visa.
Yeah, that was the other thing but how many times have you heard an organisation have some success and then say, ‘we’re going to roll this out’?
All the time. Here’s the answer, let’s go.
So Sternin (I think this is his genius in all this) he pushed back on that. He said, ‘you can’t roll this out. You’ve got to do the same thing again—you’ll get different answers in different villages and contexts. So, off he goes, gets his visa extended and starts to do other villages.
He’s there for 10 years and he ends up making a difference to 2.2 million children in Vietnam. The problem has just about been eradicated and it’s not the standard way in which they try to address these systemic social issues which are hard to change.
Wow, it’s kind of interesting that that’s been done in Vietnam. We have many social issues (not all the same ones) and we don’t tackle them that way.
No, we don’t. Here’s something interesting. When I was sharing that with my construction company sponsor, you could see the wheels turning. And immediately she said, ‘you know the villages are just like our project sites. We need to go down and find out what these guys are doing well and see if we can do more of it and see if we can transfer all of the knowledge, the questions and get different perspectives’.
And this is part of our show. Why does this work? What is it about this type of story that connects with people?
There’s a whole bunch but the first one is that it’s about kids.
We’re fascinated by kids; apparently children are our future so the fact that it’s about the health and welfare of children is very attention-getting. It totally breaks the script. We expect somebody to go in and figure out the answer and just tell everybody.
And the way Sternin pushed back was fundamental to the success of that programme. The bright spots approach is counter-intuitive; not what we normally do.
Right and I think that’s one of the great elements of that story. It’s a surprise component of the story that makes it interesting. But I think the other part is it’s so concrete you could work out something similar in your own organisation.
It’s really an analogy for a new project. In a different context, industry, how can we reconstruct that to make it work in our area?
Yeah, I think also what works about that story, that enables it to be repeated so usefully is the detail that you had. What were the three things that Sternin found in that first set of villages? The scooping of the prawns and the shrimps and adding that to the food, even if the kids were sick they were still getting their daily food (meagre though it was), and they were adding that vegetable in and so adding more nutrients.
I haven’t read that story for years but it’s so concrete. And being so concrete is why that story is so effective; it helps trigger for the listener the things they might do, find, or look for.
And imagine the alternative to that. We hear this quite often, where people say we want to do a change project and we’ll give each site autonomy to do it for themselves to define and replicate best practice for that particular site and there’ll be knowledge transfer as a result of that. And it’s this language which is so abstract and you do, ‘we’ll what do you actually do out of that?’
I just want to add to what you’re saying there. Essentially, we’re applying the theory of positive deviancy to this: the mistaken belief that the things we say are concrete and understandable when they are almost impenetrably abstract.
And it comes down to that habit of what we’ve been talking about. O.k. we’ve talked a little bit about why that story works. What are the situations?
If I was working on a project team helping a big construction company.
You’d give it a go there?
I’d give it a go there, yes. If you’re in a situation where you want to achieve some sort of change it’s a great story to illustrate to people that there are multiple ways to think about skinning that change cap.
And again, it’s trying to get people thinking outside of that box, to use one of those clichéd terms. Just to shake people up so that they’re not hearing the same thing that they almost become deaf to it.
Some of the greatest management innovations happen when you take it from one field and take it over the fence to the next field and people haven’t even thought of doing it that way. Another one that we love to use is called ‘the most significant change’ and that again comes from the non-profit sector.
There is stuff happening in different sectors that most organisations have no idea about. You’ve got to peer over the fence.
I’m actually working with a global client at the moment. They’re involved in a major transformation from operating in hundreds of separate business units to operating in a much more consolidated operating entity. And they talk about bringing the outside in.
And they go out and visit similar industries and they’re just learning so much. So that peering over the fence, looking at what others are doing is a great way of triggering ideas for what you can do differently in your own organisation.
Are those guys looking at similar industries or going further afield and finding metaphors for what they’re doing?
Yeah. They’re in a food industry and they’re going and looking at banking. They are doing other food industries of course but they’re also going into vastly different industries and seeing what they’re doing. It’s a great strategy.
When you’re trying to get people to think differently or give them very specific ways to tackle a change project or programme, this type of story is great. I can’t think of any other particular uses. Anything for you?
No, not of the top of my head. It does trigger another story that I love, which is along the same lines. In Africa in the 1980’s – Guinea worm. Back in the 80’s and 90’s millions of people infected with Guinea worm—terrible parasite. It had enormous social, health, and economic implications because people who contracted Guinea worm cause massive infections in their villages.
A guy from the Carter Centre, Donald Hopkins, went to Africa and tackled the Guinea worm problem exactly the same way that Sternin did. He looked for villages that had low incidence of Guinea worm; the bright spot, deviating to the positive, and he just studied what they did.
Very simple practices; the females would go to the waterholes and collect the water but before pouring it they would take their scarves off and place them over the mouth of the water container, effectively filtering the water. The larvae of the Guinea worm breeds in water.
It was socially acceptable to dob your mate in if they were infected with Guinea worm—it was expected. At the first sign you need to know because then they kept them away from water sources because the Guinea worm propagates in water. So, they had to keep people away from the water sources and when you’re infected with Guinea worm all you want to do you want to ease the burning itching by getting into water.
He identified those bright spots but he failed the first time because he didn’t do what Jerry Sternin did. They just went around and told people what the answer was and nothing changed.
They got people with a bit of a profile to do the normal African thing, which is to walk barefoot into the village and sit in the village square. And people would come and then they would start talking, explain what was happening, and ask what was happening in that village.
This approach is so successful that Guinea worm is predicted to be the only disease that is ever going to be eradicated from the plant earth without a cure being found.
Is that right?
It’s going to be eradicated through behaviour change. It’s pretty awesome.
But there’s one more twist to this story and that is because the Guinea worm is now so rare there is a group of people who have started a foundation called ‘save the Guinea worm’ and they are infecting themselves with Guinea worm to make sure it continues. So, on that note it shows how enterprising humans are and sometimes how dumb.
O.K. let’s go back to the Jerry Sternin story. What’s your rating for this story? How usable is it? How impactful do you think the story is?
I think it’s very high impact, a fantastic story, particularly in application in change situations so I’m going to give that one an 8.
An 8. Yeah, that’s my experience. When I tell this story people are hanging—what happens next? They want to know how this going to be resolved. So, for that and because it’s such a good starting point for a conversation—it just gets people thinking creatively about how they might tackle things I’m going to give it a 9. I think this is my top score so far.
You’ve knocked it out of the park with that one, Shawn.
Guys that’s really where we want to finish things up. Thanks for listening to Anecdotally Speaking.
And if you like this podcast please give us a rating on iTunes or make comments. And if what we’ve said has triggered your own story please go to our blog and share the story and help build everybody’s story bank.
Bye for now.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one 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:
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