How to Find Solutions to Your Toughest Problems

When you’re stuck with a tough problem (especially a big one), do you find yourself trying to tackle the whole challenge and end up feeling overwhelmed? In Switch, the Heath brothers spoke of finding “bright spots“, i.e. glimmers of success that hint that something is going right. The idea is to study them and find ways to clone them.

In this article, we’re going to build on this idea and connect it with several other book ideas to help you crystallize how to use Bright Spots to find solutions to even your toughest problems.

Bright Spots in Times of Change

In Switch, the authors gave the example of how people struggled to deal with malnutrition in Vietnam—a big, complicated problem that involved wide-ranging social, poverty, education and sanitation issues. A breakthrough came in the 1990s when Jerry Sternin zoomed in on “bright spot mothers” who managed to raise healthy kids despite the challenging conditions. He examined what they did differently, and realized that these mothers had simple cooking and feeding habits that could be emulated by other locals. Through small community cooking groups, they were able to bring families together to practice the solutions and improve the situation.

What major life or organizational changes are you trying to shape, and how can you find Bright Spots to get your first wins?

Bright Spots and Organizational Performance

Let’s say you’re trying to refine a newly-launched process to handle customer queries. So far, 20% of the customers love it, 60% seem indifferent, and 20% have been complaining furiously about it. Your first reaction is probably to quickly address the 20% of angry customers, correct? Well, that’s the “wrong” approach. You’d be better off focusing on the 20% of customers who love the new process—find out what went right with them, and how you can expand or replicate those components.

In Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock shared several practices which made Google so successful.  One of Google’s key performance management strategies is to focus on the “Two Tails“. Instead of treating performance like a normal distribution curve, they zoom in on the best and worst performing employees:

• Learn from the top 5%: Study these top performers closely to find what they’re doing right, in the specific context of your company. Then, build programs to measure and duplicate their best attributes.

• Help the bottom 5%: Using the lessons from the top 5%, you can now design effective interventions to significantly improve the results of the minority who are struggling. [Of course, that’s assuming you’ve hired the right people in the first place–something that’s also addressed in the book].

The Two Tails strategy is essentially the Bright Spots focus at work. What other bright spots can you find to address challenges in your organization?

 

Bright Spots for Breakthroughs

What if you’re really stuck and can’t seem to find any bright spots around you? This is where we can draw from 2 other books to expand how we apply the Bright Spots focus:

The 6 Paths Framework

If you’re trying create breakthroughs in your business or product, you can adapt one of the Blue Ocean Strategy tools. Force yourself to look for bright spots outside of your current space, across 6 different paths: different industries, different strategic groups (those pursuing similar strategies), different time, different phases in the buyer decision process, functional vs emotional appeal, and types of complementary products.

Expanding Analogies

You can also use this technique from Decisive to find new ideas. Start from analogies that are most identical to your situation, then expand it progressively to get more creative. For example, if you want to reduce the queuing time in your office canteen, you can start with bright spots within your organization (e.g. how queue lines were shortened at the checkout counters). Then, gradually broaden your reference points to look at other industries, e.g. queue-management at F&B outlets or retail stores, or even crowd management practices at stadiums or theme parks.Focusing on Bright Spots offers a simple but powerful shift in perspective to help you break out of a state of paralysis, and to find new solutions to any problem or challenge.

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