Empathy, Innovation, Understanding the Customer

Listening for Hidden Solutions

positivedevianceEvery cloud has its silver lining. At least that’s what were told, usually when things go bad. There has to be a nugget of hope somewhere. I can only imagine that thought ran through Jerry Sternin’s mind when he visited Vietnam in 1990. As part of Save the Children, Sternin was there to help the malnourished.

You see, at the time in Vietnam, nearly 65% of children under the age of 5 were malnourished. Water quality and poverty were known problems, but not something Sternin could fix. And he only had limited time before his visa expired. Not exactly fertile grounds for silver linings.

Picture a stream in the woods; twisting, turning and babbling. Until a stray boulder blocks the flow. In innovation, we commonly see user experience flows that abruptly halt due to pain points. As humans on Earth, we experience them first hand. As innovators, we are quick to seek empathy and design new solutions.

But focusing on only the pain points causes two problems.

The first is that you miss the hidden problems. During World War II, The Army Air Force asked Abraham Wald to figure out where to put more armor on their bombers, in order to survive more flights. They showed Wald, part of the Statistical Research Group, where bullet holes grouped on various parts of planes that returned home. Wald instructed them to place more armor where the bullet holes weren’t. You see, planes with holes in those areas, don’t make it back to be analyzed. This was the hidden problem.

The second is that you miss hidden solutions. The woodland stream, without your interference, may find its own solution to the rocky intruder. It may divert its flow, pool around, or erode away until it can burrow through. This is where Jerry Sternin comes back in.


He didn’t impact nutrition for the children in Vietnam by instituting changes. He looked for positive deviance. He was searching for outliers who had access to the same resources as the 65%, but somehow their children were healthy. And sure enough, he found them. They were making small adjustments to the diet, very simple adjustments. We’d call them lifehacks and they’d get on all kinds of top ten lists on social media. But Sternin did not have the power of Buzzfeed or Facebook. Instead he had the families with the positive deviance hold cooking classes with the other families. Doers impacting doers.

Next time you are digging in to gain empathy as part of your Design Thinking framework, or examining pain points and jobs to be done as part of your Value Proposition Design, be on the lookout for that positive deviance. Include questions into your user interviews in search of outliers of outrageous fortune. Your designed solution has much to learn by the handcrafted workaround by the user. If they solved it without you, you need to give them a reason to solve it with you.

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