Find the Bright Spots!

Books Organizational culture Respect


Key Point: Today, more than ever, an essential leadership competence is the ability to advance an organization’s culture. As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for lunch.” So what strategies can leaders deploy to “up shift” culture? Harnessing the power of “Bright Spots,” is one impactful and perhaps under-utilized strategy for driving rapid, sustainable cultural improvement. Chip Heath, the Stanford based organization consultant, researcher and author recently spoke to 700 hundred of our leaders. Check out his book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. He told the following story: 

“In 1990, Jerry Sternin, author of Power of Positive Deviance, was sent by Save the Children to fight severe malnutrition in rural communities of Vietnam. The Vietnamese foreign minister, having seen many such ‘do-gooder’ missions in the past, gave him just six months to make a difference. Sternin was well versed in the academic literature on the complex systemic causes of malnutrition – poor sanitation, poverty, lack of education, etc. He considered such information “T.B.U.” – “True But Useless.” There was no way a strategy focused on changing these deeply rooted issues could see results in six months.

Instead, Sternin used an approach that he would later call positive deviance. He traveled to villages and met with the foremost experts on feeding children: Groups of village mothers. He asked them whether there were any very poor families whose children were bigger and healthier than the typical child, even though their families had only the same resources available to all. Hearing that the answer was ‘yes,’ Sternin and villagers set out to discover what the mothers of the healthiest children were doing differently.

They found that the mothers of the healthiest children were indeed doing things differently. First, they were feeding their children smaller portions of food, more often during the day. Second, they were taking brine shrimp from the rice paddies and greens from sweet potatoes grown in their gardens and adding these to their daily soups or rice dishes. They were doing this even though most people avoided these foods, which were stigmatized as ‘low class.’ And third, when serving their children, they were ladling from the bottom of the pot, making sure the kids got the shrimp and greens that had settled during cooking.

Sternin called these families ‘bright spots’ – observable exceptions recognized by their peers as producing results above the norm with only the same kinds of resources available to others. In less than a month, he and the mothers had discovered local practices that were effective, realistic and sustainable. He helped mothers in other villages to study their local bright spots and replicate their behavior. Critical to the success of this process was recognizing that sustainable solutions are already in use, and could be locally sourced by local people. Sternin helped the ‘bright spot’ mothers in numerous villages train others in the most effective practices for their communities. At the end of six months, 65 percent of the children in the villages where Sternin worked were better nourished.”

Character Moves: 

  1. Look for Bright Spots in your team/organization. And then leverage insight you get from them. It is often the fastest, most meaningful way to drive RESULTS. Sometimes it may seem too simple or obvious. Be humble enough to embrace the simplicity. 
  2. In a previous blog, I talked about the importance of extinguishing Dim Spots. However, avoid becoming seduced into exclusively doing so. People who are unwilling or incapable of changing their behavior to contribute to the “up shift” of the “new” culture DO need to leave. Yet, indulging in what could be perceived as a cultural “witch hunt” will likely slow down a meaningful cultural change and be less productive than effectively leveraging the best of Bright Spots.
  3. Invite peers to help discover who and where Bright Spots are and use stories to describe their behavior and results. As the Bright Spots connect and flourish, the momentum will help Dim Spots either switch on or fizzle out. 

Bright Spots in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: The nice thing about being a Millennial (and therefore, lower on most totem poles), is we’re really only looking for Bright Spots. That’s all I want to have mentor me, or really want to pay attention to. I simply don’t care about Dim Spots. For two reasons: 1. Unless they adversely affect MY personal work, it’s a distraction to even let them bother me. 2. We’re not that far removed from the “tattle tale” days, in theory, so it’s still their job to notice it on their own or someone more important probably will. That said, I’m all for Millennial teamwork too, so, if there’s a Dim Spot colleague you notice who can make a quick improvement, go ahead and give em’ a positive, quiet nudge… (Emphasis on quiet: Direct Message, Gchat, catch them in the hall or break room, whatever). But, you don’t need to call out his or her screw up across the office in front of all superiors to hear. If that’s your style, then yeah, that Dim Spot will probably become a lot brighter, and maybe even bright enough to burn you later.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis