Proven Way to Make Most Any Bad Situation Better

Kare Anderson
3 min readJul 2, 2021

When told to tackle the widespread child malnutrition in Vietnam in 1990 as an employee of Save the Children, Jerry and Monique Sternin could easily have become overwhelmed. Plus the country’s foreign minister told them, “You have six months to make a difference.”

Instead of looking at the macro problems such as polluted water, he asked the mothers in one village to meet with him to discover, together, the healthiest children and to then discover why.

They found that the mothers of healthier kids were feeding them four meals a day (using the same amount of food as other moms but spreading it across four servings rather than two). The larger twice-a-day meals eaten by most families turned out to be a mistake for children because their malnourished stomachs couldn’t process that much food at one time,” according to Switch co-authors Dan and Chip Heath.

They characterized this approach as searching for “a bright spot and then cloning it.” Rather than trying to fix what’s wrong, it’s easier to scale what’s going right.
Tip: Look for the positive deviance in a situation and see how to spread it. Read more about exactly how in Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin’s book The Power of Positive Deviance.

To remember this lesson, picture someone riding an elephant, Chip Heath suggests, citing psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor. “The Rider represents our analytical, planning side. The Rider decides, ‘I need to go somewhere, here’s the direction I want to go,’ and sets off. But it’s the Elephant, the emotional side, that’s providing the power. The Rider can try to lead the Elephant, but in any direct contest of wills the Elephant is going to win — it has a six-ton advantage.”
1. Look closely at the situation you want to fix or improve and ask these key questions:
• What is working well now, and how can we do more of it?
• In the midst of this mess, who is thriving and how can we help others thrive like them?
2. Once you discover one or more sweet spots, consider what other talents and resources you need to make such shining situations the rule rather than the exception. The Heaths call this copying success rather than solving problems.When you see something you want to fix, instead of troubleshooting, consider success-spreading.

Core Lesson: Finding the things you’re doing right, as an individual or a team, and figuring out how to do them more often, together, is considerably more pleasant and likely to succeed than feeling guilty for what you’re doing badly and attempting to stop it.



Kare Anderson

Emmy-winner, TED:OpportunityMakers/over 2.5 mil views, MutualityMatters+Be Connected & Quotable