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Silver Linings: Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Deviance, Bright Spots

By Tom Peterson

It’s easier to notice something gone wrong—poor restaurant service, a political misstep, a bad situation at work—than something going really right. Perhaps bad is just more interesting. But what if we focused more on the things that are working? The silver linings?

They’re called positive deviance, bright spots, appreciative inquiry, things gone right (TGR). While perhaps different in the details, these approaches to change share a core idea: instead of fixating on (then trying to fix) problems, look for what’s going well and build on that. Or as the old song goes, You’ve Got to Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.

Positive Deviance

The classic example (told in the Heath Brothers’ Switch, Andresen’s Robin Hood Marketing, Fast Company, and the Positive Deviance site) involves Jerry Sternin, who in 1990 went to Vietnam for Save the Children. He was given just six months to create a program that addressed inadequate diets of children (in villages 65 percent were malnourished). (Case study here.)

Using the positive deviance model, the team surveyed the health of the children in the targeted villages and found some “very very poor children” who were well nourished—positive deviants. They delved deeper with six families and found that parents were gathering small shrimps, snails or crabs in the rice paddies and adding them, along with greens, to the same meal other children ate. These “deviant” families also fed their children three or four times a day instead of the traditional two. Yet these simple (and free) practices were available to all families.

With the six-month clock ticking, the Sternin and team called the village leaders and volunteers together. “We have all learned many valuable secrets about how to have a well nourished child despite poverty… over the past two months,” he said. “But we don’t know the best way to help people practice them. What should we do?” And within a couple of weeks the village leaders had developed a roll out plan. By the end of the year, most of the 1,000 children in the program had visible improvement. The approach worked.

Appreciative Inquiry

Like positive deviance, rather than focusing on an organization’s problems, appreciative inquiry ferrets out what’s going well. It  asks, how can we build on this? Appreciative Inquiry’s website tells us it began in 1980 when 24-year-old doctoral student David Cooperider was studying organizational behavior the Cleveland Clinic. Influenced by Albert Schweitzer’s concept of Reverence for Life, Cooperrider focused his analysis on the life-giving aspects of the clinic. The approach gained traction and by the 1990s practitioners were working with governments, corporations and nonprofit organizations. You can find a nice video overview here.

As you create your strategies, look to these models. You’d be amazed at how often when you ask, “Is there something positive that surprised you?” a kernel emerges that shows a great path forward.

External Links

In a three-minute video, Professor John Hayes explains Appreciative Inquiry.

The Positive Deviance Initiative (PDI) “is a network organization… dedicated to amplifying the use of the Positive Deviance approach to enable communities worldwide to solve seemingly “intractable” problems requiring behavioral and social change.”

Appreciative Inquiry: the AI Commons “is a worldwide portal devoted to the fullest sharing of academic resources and practical tools on Appreciative Inquiry and the rapidly growing discipline of positive change.”

You may also enjoy Wow Project!


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