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Find A Bright Spot and Clone It

That’s the first step to fixing everything, from addiction to corporate malaise to malnutrition. A problem may look hopelessly complex. But there’s a game plan that can yield movement on even the toughest issues. And it starts with locating a bright spot – a ray of hope.

When we analyze a big, complicated problem like malnutrition in Vietnam, or a married couple nearing divorce, or a business on the verge of bankruptcy – we seek a solution that befits the scale of the problem. If the problem is a round hole with a 24 inch diameter, our brains will go looking for a 24 inch peg to fill it.

Our focus, in times of change, goes instinctively to the problems at hand. What’s broken and how do we fix it? This troubleshooting mind-set serves us well – most of the time. If you run a nuclear power plant and your diagnostics turn up a disturbing signal once per month, you should most certainly obsess about it and fix the problem. And if your child brings home a report card with five As and one F, it makes sense to freak out about the F.

But in times of change, this mind-set will backfire. If we need to make major changes, then (by definition) we don’t have a near spotless report card. A lot of things are probably wrong. The ‘report card’ for our diet, our marriage, or our business, is full of Cs and Ds and Fs. So if you ask yourself, what’s broken and how do I fix it? You’ll simply spin your wheels. You’ll spend a lot of time agonizing over issues that are TBU (true but useless).

When it’s time for change, we must look for bright spots – the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?

In tough times, we’ll see problems everywhere, and “analysis paralysis” will often kick in. That’s why to make progress on a change, we need to provide crystal clear direction – show people where to go, how to act, what destination to pursue. And that’s why bright spots are so essential: they provide the road map.

You may not be fighting malnutrition, but if you’re trying to change things, there are going to be bright spots in your field of view. And if you learn to identify and understand them you will solve one of the fundamental mysteries of change: what, exactly, needs to be done differently?

Focusing on bright spots can be counterintuitive for businesses, as Richard Pascale discovered in 2003 when he accepted a consulting assignment with Genentech. The company had recently launched a drug called Xolair, which had been viewed as a “miracle drug” for asthma. It had proven effective in preventing asthma attacks in many patients. Yet six months after launch, sales remained well below expectations.

Pascale and his team were asked to help figure out why Xolair was underperforming. They immediately started looking for bright spots and soon found one. Two saleswomen, who worked in Dallas, were selling 20 times more than their peers. Further investigation revealed that rather than selling the health benefits of the drug – which doctors largely understood – the saleswomen were helping doctors understand how to administer it. Xolair was not a pill or inhaler; it required an IV drip. This was unfamiliar to the allergists and pediatricians who would be prescribing the drug.

So did everyone at Genentech celebrate the discovery of the bright spot in Dallas-Fort Worth? Er, no. In fact, the DFW rep’s superior results were viewed with suspicion – managers assumed their territory was too big.

In other words, Genentech’s managers’ first reaction to the good news was that it had to be bad news! That response is a good reminder that our capacity for analysis is endless. Even success can look like warning flags to our problem-solving brains.

What if we had a more positive orientation? Imagine a world where, every time you flipped a light switch and the room lit up, you experienced a rush of gratitude. Imagine a world where, after a husband forgot his wife’s birthday, she gave him a big kiss and said, “for 13 of the last 14 years, you’ve remembered my birthday! That’s wonderful!”

This is not our world.

But in times of change, it needs to be. Our rational brain has a problem focus when it needs a solution focus. If you are a manager, ask yourself, what is the ratio of time you spend solving problems versus scaling successes?

We need to switch from archeological problem solving to bright spot evangelizing.

These flashes of success, these bright spots, can provide our road map for action – and the hope that change is possible.

To read an example of a wonderful real life story about the application of this concept, go to:

This piece is an adaptation from an article in Fast Company magazine, which was an adaptation from Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

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