The Power of Positive Deviance

Three authors, braided strands, complementary talents intertwining across time. Our affiliation has shaped lives, contributed to marriages, and altered careers over the two decades of collaboration in this work.


Jerry Sternin Jerry Sternin began his profession in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer on the island of Mindanao, Philippines. There, on a narrow wooden bridge in the tiny village of Marawi, he met Richard Pascale, on active duty in the U.S. Navy. A lifelong relationship took root.


Jerry became Associate Peace Corps Director, Nepal, and Richard began his graduate education at Harvard Business School (HBS). When Jerry's overseas tour ended, Richard's introduction paved the way for his appointment as Counseling Dean at HBS. A man of many talents, Jerry left HBS four years later to devote himself to one of his many interests—cooking. He opened a restaurant, Chautara, (Nepalese for resting place) in Pembroke, Massachusetts. Chautara was awarded a five star rating in the Boston Globe.


Jerry & Monique SterninJerry's association with Harvard altered the course of his life. There he met Monique, a French citizen in pursuit of her master's degree. They married, "honeymooned" on a Peace Corps directorship in Mauritania, and returned to Harvard in 1981 for Jerry's postgraduate work in Asian Studies with a concentration in Mandarin. In the course of study, they were introduced to a peripheral research distinction—positive deviance—a term used to categorize the outliers occasionally encountered in fieldwork (i.e., those who defy the norm and succeed when others are failing). At the time the construct inspired no particular epiphany. It was filed away in the cerebral cortex.


Richard PascaleRichard Pascale, meanwhile, had received his doctorate from Harvard Business School and commenced life as a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. His interests lay at the intersection of strategic ambition and the attendant requirement for individual and organizational change. By the late 1980s he had become a respected teacher and bestselling author. Expertise also attracted consulting assignments, one of them with John Browne, newly named head of British Petroleum's exploration division.


The Sternins, now with a young son, left Harvard and rotated through a series of Save the Children directorships in Bangladesh and the Philippines. In 1989, the NGO made an offer that was hard to refuse: open the first field office in Vietnam. First hurdle: the venture needed funding, but host sensitivities were such that the funds could not come from an American source. Richard, still consulting to BP, learned of the company's plans to conduct offshore seismic tests in Vietnam's territorial waters. He introduced the Sternins' work to John Browne. A seed grant of $250,000 was provided to underwrite the startup. BP's support continued over the duration of the project.


The next hurdle surfaced shortly thereafter, in 1990. Scars of the "American War" (as it is known in Vietnam) were both physically and psychologically manifest. The Ministry of Health wished to focus on the widespread prevalence of childhood malnutrition in rural Vietnam. As described in chapter 2, that the proposed collaboration with an all-too-recent enemy was not straightforward. Preliminary visits before embarking on the venture made clear that receptivity was tentative, access to the population limited, and the window during which the Sternins must prove themselves short. What followed was the first of many successes using the PD approach over the next thirty years.


The sage, the steward, and the scholar; intertwined lives with complementary talents, joined by a profound appreciation of the capacity of people to discover solutions for themselves.


Jerry Sternin (who died on December 11, 2008) combined deep wisdom with an uncanny ability to connect with people of all persuasions. Maestro of many PD workshops across the years, he was charismatic, funny, self-deprecating, and engaging. His warmth and understanding were transformational for the many he touched.


Monique SterninMonique Sternin has a master's degree from Paris University in American literature and civilization. In 1975, she traveled to India and Nepal and developed an interest in cross-cultural communication. After a teaching stint in Paris, she moved to the US for graduate study receiving a master's degree from Harvard School of Education in 1978. Monique brings rigor to fieldwork: she was the steward of the learning, translating artistic impulse into replicable process. What works? What doesn't? What empirical foundation must be laid to determine whether verifiable progress has been made? The antithesis of a sober empiricist, Monique has a remarkable capacity to blend into the community she serves, listen at their feet, and see the world through the eyes of those she works with. As a result of these latter sensibilities, the PD process "tail" has never wagged the change problem's "dog." PD is not a doctrine. It has evolved as a disciplined yet highly malleable methodology.


Richard, author, teacher, and consultant, has focused on the challenges of large-scale change. In the fieldwork described here, he played a background role, documenting the process and occasionally cofacilitating workshops. He observed the Sternins in action in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Uganda, Argentina, and the Pittsburgh VA hospital. His contributions extended to posing skeptical questions about the mysterious bits, in particular whether PD constituted anything distinctly new. He has been involved in efforts to apply PD in the private sector. Finally, as the most experienced writer on the team, Richard took the lead in editing his coauthors' narratives, developing explanatory material, and assembling the pieces into a coherent whole.


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