When we are faced with things we need to change, we are compelled to look at the surrounding information and issues contributing to the problem to try to fix it. There is often a complex web of issues that need to be dealt with to fix any one problem. When you need to change, this way of looking at problems can leave us feeling overwhelmed, demotivated and inactive, as the steps to ‘fix’ the problem are just too numerous, to complex or too big to deal with.
Look for the bright spots
Looking outwards to find a ‘bright spot’ is a refreshing and more effective approach and one that most importantly, gets results. It involves asking ourselves a simple question in order to make a change; “what worked before, or what’s working elsewhere and how can we do more of it?” Let’s explore how this concept was first brought to light…
In 1990, Jerry Sternin was sent to Vietnam to address the issue of severe malnutrition amongst children in rural villages. He was given six months to turn things around. At the time, malnutrition was seen as a result of the locals’ ignorance to the importance of nutrition, poverty, poor hygiene and polluted water and it was assumed the way to deal with malnutrition was to address these contributing factors. Sternin decided the information was all TBU – True But Unhelpful. If improving nutrition required fixing sanitation, eradicating poverty, providing clean water, educating people, learning the language and building bridges with key stakeholders in the government … it was never going to happen. So instead of focusing on the cause of the problem, Sternin had a better idea: to find the bright spots – children in the same communities who were not malnourished, whose parents who were feeding them well, in spite of the circumstances.
Within a month of studying these families, of whom he referred to as ‘bright spots’, he discovered local practices that were effective, realistic and sustainable and could be transferred to the other villages/ families. He brought the mothers of the nourished children and the mothers of the malnourished children together by setting up a regular community meal preparations, so the malnourished families could see what the ‘bright spot’ families were doing differently and replicate this behaviour. Sternin helped the bright spot mothers in numerous villages train others in the most effective practices for their communities. Critical to the success was the fact that the solutions were readily available and could be easily sourced by the families. Bright spots mothers fed their children four times a day, rather than two. They were more active in feeding their children, rather than leaving them to regulate their eating themselves. They also added crabs and shrimp to their children’s’ meals, local and available seafood that was traditionally seen as food suitable only for adults. The mothers of malnourished children that adopted these practices were thrilled to see their children’s health began to improve rapidly.
At the end of six months, 65% of the children in the villages where Sternin worked were better nourished.Furthermore, when researchers from Emory University’s School of Public Health visited after Sternin had left they found that children who were not even born when Sternin was working there were as healthy as the children who had been reached by Strenin’s work directly.
Finding the bright spots in the workplace
The concept of bright spots is one that can be easily transferred to the way we view and solve problems in the workplace. When problems seem so complex, the bright spots approach encourages you to explore and examine what’s working elsewhere, or what worked before. If you try to tackle the problems and facts surrounding an issue head on, you can be left feeling overwhelmed with all the problems and bottlenecks you need to address in order to ‘fix’ the problem. Or worse, you remain unmotivated and inactive from the analysis paralysis you feel in the shadow of the huge amount of issues you need to address.
If we acknowledge and then let go of the true but useless information at hand and instead choose to look outwards and identify our bright spots – the successful efforts worth emulating, we can create and implement a much more digestible and do-able strategy for change.
For example, if your team isn’t selling enough widgets, rather than looking at all the obstacles in the way (the ‘true but unhelpful’ facts surrounding the issue), look towards the highest performer to see what he/ she is doing differently and try to teach this same technique or behaviour to the others in the team so they can replicate the same approach. Alternatively look outwards to explore what trailblazing companies are doing to sell their own widgets and try to emulate this behaviour within your own team.Adapting this approach of identifying and copying bright spots, in times of change, makes the process much more effective and achievable.
Next time you have an intractable problem you need to address, try approaching it in this way. What are the TBU (True But Unhelpful) facts that you need to let go of? What are people currently doing? Where amongst the population are their Bright Spots – locally grown solutions that are producing better results in the same environment? How can you create an experience where people just start following rather than spending time and money trying to educate?
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