This clump of daffodils is the only bright spot in my back yard today. Bright spots are rare in this early spring on Long Island, especially after the brutal winter we just experienced.
"Bright spots" is also a term used in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath to describe a simple way to identify practical process improvements within a complex system. In regards to workplace performance improvement, finding the bright spots -- finding the exceptional employees who are excelling at a task -- can be the gateway to lifting performance as a whole.
In a previous post (see above), I mentioned that as a corporate trainer, I love training, but it's not always the solution. Training can solve a skills gap or a knowledge gap. That's about it.
In many organizations, the way to performance improvement is always:
The Make Them DO Better Approach
- Identify the under-performers.
- Figure out what they're doing wrong.
- Correct those wrong things.
As I'll explain in a minute, that's a fallacy-prone strategy. Instead, Chip and Dan Heath say it's smarter and more efficient to use the opposite approach, or, as I would call it:
The Take Them TO Better Approach
- Identify the over-performers.
- Figure out what they're doing right.
- Propagate those right things.
In one case example of the bright spots principle, Chip and Dan Heath cite how infant survival rates in postwar Vietnam were radically increased by discovering, then adopting, two simple nutritional differences that a small minority of village mothers had adopted, almost by accident, in their quest for improving their babies' diet.
This concept of finding and studying bright spots is elegant because it identifies readily-employable solutions that are already in play within the arena of activity and thus ripe for broader adoption. Instead of low-hanging fruit, think high-poking daffodils. They're there, they're thriving, and their very existence means two things:
1. Success is possible within the current system;
2. Under the right conditions, there could be more.
What's Wrong With Wrong
Most performance measurements focus on one problem metric: the number of service complaints, or the number of system failures, or the number of errors that required reprocessing, to name some examples. These measurements fail to shed much light on the whole picture, which is probably filled with problem-riddled scenarios, variables, and bottlenecks. It would cost way too much time and energy to produce a breakdown of all the various ways things are breaking down -- and if such a study could be done, it would only tend to highlight the hopelessness of it all.
So managers who are tasked with performance improvement will instead look for easy fixes that can move the needle and give the top brass a feeling that things are going better. That's why a quick hit like a training program is such a seductive solution. It would be so great to say, "We sent x number of employees for retraining, and their numbers improved by x %!"
(Unfortunately, if lack of training wasn't the root issue, the numbers won't move that much -- and even if lack of training was a factor, the general flow of business has a way of discounting its effects. There will always be other events that steal training's thunder. "Yeah, numbers went up, but don't forget, that was the same month that the business launched the new marketing campaign, or the new centralized purchasing process, or the new IVR system, or the new accounting software..." The same can be said of all short-term, short-sighted fixes. All measurable evidence can be reduced to anecdotal hypothesis by introducing competing success factors. )
So, how can the concept of finding bright spots help to stop this endlessly underwhelming performance improvement loop?
First, instead of focusing on what's going wrong, the opposite approach of analyzing what is going right can shed light on the most important operative deficits. Here's how it works.
The Easiest Way To Identify Performance Issues
1. Find your "bright spots" - the workers who get the highest performance marks. These are the ones who consistently score higher on the measures that mean the most to the business. They might have won awards and recognition, or they might be hidden deep in the woodwork. Either way, they are the people who are helping the enterprise the most. They are the ones to watch.
2. Look at what these "bright spots" are doing differently. Discover how they organize the work. Watch what they use. Map their habits. What helps them overcome constraints? But don't just watch them. Talk to them. Interview them. Focus group them. Find out how they are thinking differently. Listen to how they explain their tasks to themselves. How have they reframed common problems to think about them from a different perspective? What gives them satisfaction? What keeps them on track emotionally?
3. Identify which homegrown tools, processes, beliefs and behaviors each "bright spot" employs that make the most impact on his or her workflow. Not all of these factors will be reproducible. Some are innate and talent-based. However, some will show potential for duplication on a bigger scale.
4. Take it a step further. Sort these reproducible factors into categories. You will see that they fall into our three component groups discussed in my prior blog post, shown here:
- Training Components = how high-performing workers explain the work to themselves: how they sort their work into workflows, prioritize work or make work simpler via shortcuts
- Motivating Components = how high-performing workers view their work from a value standpoint: what makes them they feel rewarded for achievement, what they say to themselves to keep pushing their performance, and what they say to others that indicates why their work matters to them
- Equipping Components = how high-performers outfit themselves for success: checklists, cheat sheets, calendar reminders, files, containers, and other systems and tools that they have worked out for themselves to solve problems and boost their productivity
Now, let's talk about the other labels in the intersections on the diagram. These are descriptors that managers often use for employees who aren't meeting expectations. You won't find them in any official HR documentation, but you'll hear them verbalized bitterly in monthly management meetings. You might call these the "dark spots" in the organization. (Sorry, Chip and Dan -- that term is my own creation.) Pay attention to these labels! They can identify performance issues as accurately as bright spots, but in a more roundabout way. Use your awareness of the dark spots to focus your bright spots search.
Signs that You Need a Specific Bright Spots Study
- "Complainers." These are employees who blame their poor showing on things like impossible deadlines, unresponsive coworkers, outdated computer software, or other lack of resources (floor space, budget, equipment, etc.) It's too easy to target the pessimism in this group and merely write them off as disgruntled, when actually, they may be better described as dis-empowered. Listen closely to their feedback. It could be that these employees are Trained and Motivated, but not Equipped. Focus your bright spot search on the workarounds and homemade tools that your super-performers have invented to make things more doable. Find out what your bright spots are doing. You'll probably get some great ideas for process improvements, bottleneck solutions, and/or system enhancements that can streamline production.
- "Slackers." These are employees who have found a way to stay in a job without giving it their whole effort. They view their work output as a bargaining chip. They do exactly what is expected off them, and no more, and only under certain conditions. These employees are probably Trained and Equipped, but not Motivated. If this is the general profile of your workforce, your bright spot search should look for super-performers who go against the do-the-minimum culture. When you find them, focus group the heck out of them. Find out what they are feeling. How do they combat the cynicism, defeatism, and depression that affects their coworkers? In your mixed bag of discoveries, there'll likely be some cost-effective ideas for improving communication, morale, and company policies to reflect a commitment to better employee treatment and stronger core values.
- "Bumblers." These are employees who can't get out of their own way. They're not producing because they don't have adequate rules, guidance, or skill development. They're mostly Motivated and Equipped, just not Trained enough. Time to do a bright spot search to identify workers who actually are achieving. Once you isolate those workers, find out what they are knowing. Why are they, and only they, succeeding? How have they cracked the code? Have they taken the time and effort to train themselves? Did they map their own process, write their own checklist, or recruit their own mentor to show them how? You will learn a lot by shadowing them on a typical workday and asking "How did you know to do that?" Be ready to capture their bootleg self-tutorials and market them to the top brass as potential add-ons to the current training regimen.
Bright spots are not the same as best practices. They don't just formalize certain approved cookie-cutter behaviors. They can empower change from a number of angles simultaneously, but always with this principle as common denominator:
It's already working for us somewhere -- why not systematize it?
When you find the high-poking daffodils in your business' back yard, don't just enjoy them. Find out why they're there -- then make it your mission to cultivate them and grow more.
Please leave a comment to share your thoughts on employee messaging, performance management, or bright spots.