Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bright Spots

Switch by Chip and Dan HeathIn Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath share the story of Jerry Sternin (1938-2008) who in 1990, while working for Save the Children, was asked to open an office in Vietnam and fight malnutrition. He was told by the Vietnamese government that he had six months to make a difference. Note, in 1990 about 65 percent of all Vietnamese children under the age of five suffered from malnutrition.

Jerry had researched malnutrition in Vietnam. The conventional wisdom was that the causes were poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water, and ignorance of the rural villagers. From Jerry's point of view this information was “True But Useless”, as there was little he could do in six months to remedy those issues, especially with almost no budget.

Fast forward six months and Jerry had improved the health of over 60 percent of the children in 14 villages. Within 2 years malnutrition in the villages dropped by 65% to 85%.  Over time what he did reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages. He accomplished this without resolving the key issues mentioned above and with very limited financial resources. 

How was that accomplished on a shoestring budget?

Jerry Sternin in Vietnam, 1991According to Jerry “It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Jerry visited a limited number of villages and assessed the health of the children in each one. He then analyzed the information he collected, found the “bright spots” (healthy children among the very poor), studied what the mothers of those children did differently, then shined a light on their practices and let the villagers help each other modify their behaviors.

What were the behaviors?

  • Bright-spot moms fed their children four times instead of twice a day. In total they did not give their children more food they just spread it out over the course of the day (malnourished children could only process a limited amount of food at one time).
  • These moms were actively involved in feeding their children. Rather than just having them eat out of a communal bowl, these mothers encouraged their children to eat and hand-fed them if necessary, even when the children were not feeling well and did not want to eat.
  • Bright-spot moms also added bits of crab and shrimp from the rice paddies to the rice as well as sweet potato greens (considered a low class food).
  • He then worked with the villagers and "designed a program in which fifty malnourished families, in groups of ten, would meet at a hut each day and prepare food. These families were required to bring shrimp, crabs, and sweet-potato greens. The mothers washed their hands with soap and cooked the meal together."

The problem was solved using the local wisdom of the village. No earth shattering discoveries taking years of research were needed nor were millions of dollars required to change a host of social and infrastructural issues. Simply looking for small pockets of success, in the otherwise dismal world of children's health in rural Vietnam; then shining a light on it.

We sometimes look at our environment, whether it be work, civic, or home, and feel overwhelmed by the myriad of apparent obstacles to achieve success. Some of these are ones we have little control over and require more time and money than we have to overcome. However, if we are willing to look for “bright spots”, it is generally possible to find small areas of success that we can build on.


  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath, 2010
  • The Power of Positive Deviancy, Jerry Sternin & Robert Choo, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2000.
  • Positive Deviant, David Dorsey, Fast Company, Nov 30, 2000
    Jerry Sternin’s job was to help save starving children in Vietnam. Faced with an impossible time frame, he adopted a radical approach to making change. His idea: Real change begins from the inside, .
  • The Positive Deviance Collaborative:
    In every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers - these are the positive deviants.


  1. Very insightful. Thank you.

  2. A most insightful article, Rod. Now the next step is to transform this principle into my actions to deal with the issues that are before me!

  3. “It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.” - A great piece of wisdom.


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