Dan Heath: How to Find Bright Spots

Let’s say your kid comes home one day and shows you this report card. Anything jump out at you? Well, if you’re like most parents, all you really see is this. And you’d hire a tutor, and your kid would be grounded, and they can kiss their Wii goodbye. This thought experiment comes from the author Marcus Buckingham, and what it reveals is that we’re wired to focus on problems rather than strengths. It would be the rare parent who’d say, “Wow, honey, you’ve really got a strength in English. I wonder how we can encourage that.” You’ve probably had friends spend hours analyzing all the problems in their relationships, but have they ever spent hours analyzing why things are working so well?

Most of the time, this problem-solving mentality works just fine. If your kid has one F, by all means, do something about it. If you work at a nuclear power plant and all your instruments are showing positive readings—except for one that’s a little bit subpar then by all means, get it fixed. Obsess about it. But there’s one time in life when this problem-focus backfires on us, and that’s when we’re trying to change things. In times of change, our report card doesn’t look almost-perfect. It looks mixed. Parts of it look like a failure. And if, in those times, we slip into problem-solving mode, we’ll spin our wheels, because there are problems everywhere. That’s a recipe for inaction, for paralysis.

In times of change, you need what my brother and I call a bright-spots focus. That is, you need to look for the early glimmers that something is going right. And when you find a bright spot, your mission is to study it and clone it.

Let’s say you launched a new sales process six months ago. So far, the results are mixed. Two reps have doubled their sales. Six are selling about what they were before. Two have slipped. And three are threatening to quit if you don’t abandon the idea. What do you do? Well, most managers would put on their problem-solving hats and spend all their time dealing with the three bellyachers. Those two stars can take care of themselves, right? Well, no, you’ve got it backwards. You should be spending your time trying to clone what those top two are doing. How have they implemented the new process? Maybe they’ve created some new sales literature, or maybe they’ve tweaked the way they approach new leads. If you can get clear on what’s working for them, you can spread those answers to your other reps.

Are you spending enough of your time scaling solutions rather than just solving problems?

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