I met Jerry Sternin at a conference at Save the Children five years ago. He was encouraging me to look into his work on “positive deviance.” My first thought was how could deviance be positive? Of course, he was referring the common bell-shaped curve and the 2% of the population on any given metric who lived out in the tail two or more standard deviations from the mean—statistical nirvana.
What Jerry found in his work in Vietnam, was the value of discovering the exceptions. When faced with rampant malnutrition and an impossible timeframe to have an impact, he was forced to look for families whose children were healthy and figure out what their mothers were doing differently. Simple variations in diet, adding rice-paddy shrimp and sweet-potato greens, resulted in healthier children. Having discovered these exceptions, he shone a spotlight on them, turning these mothers into evangelists and teachers. He reached 2.2M children over the first two years of the program.
Jerry discovered the power of what I call the “discover and harvest” approach to solving problems. Nothing could be further from the approach our organizations tend to take, especially in technology. The traditional approach is more an “assess and build” approach: assess the situation, gather requirements, specify the project, build it, test it and deliver it. The problem is that this approach has a dismal history. For example, 57% of ERP projects don't realize their ROI (Nucleus Research) and 66% IT projects fail (Standish Chaos DB). More often not, what we assess and build misses the mark.
Enter the “discover and harvest” approach. It’s all about finding those applications and uses of technology in the far reaches of your organization (and sometimes under your nose) that are already working. As Jerry would say “somewhere in your organization, groups of people are already doing things differently and better. To create lasting change, find these areas of positive deviance and fan the flames.” Imagine finding a really useful application being used in one of your rural field offices.
Why don’t we see more of this in our approach to technology? It requires headquarters humility. The best answers, especially if it involves change, need to be from the inside out. “Maybe the problem is that you can't import change from the outside in. Instead, you have to find small, successful but "deviant" practices that are already working in the organization and amplify them.” Perhaps the CIOs role is one of "Chief Amplifier." Find what’s working and can be taken to scale, and then shine the spotlight on it.
"Discover and harvest" has a number of benefits. First, it’s already working somewhere; it leapfrogs over getting a new system to work. The pilot has already been run. Second, some group has already adopted it; it doesn’t need to be sold. Third, it’s field-tested. Especially for international NGOs working in challenged rural settings, it works where technology is rare.
So how do we take a “discover and harvest” approach in our organizations? Run a contest for people to submit their applications and uses of technology. Then recognize and reward them (it doesn’t need to be a cash award.) Finally, put their name on the application. Most people take pride in what they do and want to be recognized for what they achieve.
Give it a shot. Let me know what you find.
 See the Fast Company article on Jerry’s work, “Positive Deviant,” by David Dorsey, November 30, 2000; here: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/41/sternin.html . Compare the chapter on "Bright Spots" (easier-to-explain than positive deviance) in Chip and Dan Heath's, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Broadway, 2010.
 Richard Tanner Pascale & Jerry Sternin, “Your Company’s Secret Change Agents,” Harvard Business Review, May, 2005.
 “Positive Deviant,” Fast Company.