Doing Good Work: From Problems to Bright Spots

From focusing on the problem to finding the bright spots, you can shine a light on problem-solving and continue to do your good work even better.

Do you focus on problems or find bright spots? As an organizational leader, you work tirelessly to do good work and achieve your strategic goals and objectives. Undoubtedly, you face obstacles along the way. As you ponder how best to tackle these challenges, you might pause and examine just how, exactly, your organization approaches problem-solving.

Do you focus on the problems and go “all-in” to address the issues contributing to the problem, or do you tend to search for bright spots – activities functioning at the highest levels – and build on those successes?

Supported by research in the field of organizational leadership, both approaches offer hope for change and improvement initiatives. The goal, after all, is to actually improve the effectiveness of the organization. The key is knowing which approach to use when, for whom, in what context, and under what conditions.

A problem-focused approach identifies the problem area, addresses actions and behaviors that need to change, and often calls for an in-depth root-cause analysis. Authors Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LeMahieu in Learning to Improve suggest using problem-focused tools including the fishbone diagram, system mapping, and driver diagrams (all in the spirit of improvement science) to assist in drawing out the underlying and less visible causes of a problem.

Capturing this problem-focused approach while portraying NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz in the movie Apollo 13, actor Ed Harris issued the following directive to his team: “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” The NASA team dug into the problem with extraordinary success as they brought the astronauts safely back to earth.

On the other hand, a solution-focused approach identifies what is already working well in various places throughout the organization and builds on those successes. As researchers Heath and Heath suggest in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, leaders should pursue the bright spots and ask the question, ‘What’s working, and how can we do more of it?’

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, in the real world, this obvious question is almost never asked. Instead, the question we ask is more problem-focused: ‘What’s broken, and how do we fix it?’” By finding bright spots and identifying why things are working well, leaders can build on those successes and adapt them across other levels of the organization.

Ultimately, combining both methods may prove successful as you tackle everyday problems. A brilliant illustration of a leader combining a problem-focused and solution-focused approach features the quintessential American jazz pioneer Duke Ellington. This outstanding musician reached unparalleled success not only as a composer, conductor, and orchestrator, but also as the leader of a band of musicians who stayed together much longer than most musical groups of the era.

How did Ellington do it? He composed not for the instrument itself but for the musician playing the instrument. He stated, “My biggest kick in music playing or writing is when I have a problem. Without a problem to solve, how much interest do you take in anything?

We have deep consideration for the limitations of everyone. It’s an interesting problem to handle.” Although at first glance this might sound like a problem-focused approach, Ellington moved beyond identifying the skill limitations of band members (problem-focused) and found their individual “bright spots” as musicians (solution-focused). As the composer, he created music that avoided individual limitations and purposely played to their unique musical strengths. Talk about finding the bright spots in his organization! As a result, Ellington’s band members remained in the band an average of 15 years, higher than the 3-year average for bands of the time.

From focusing on the problem to finding the bright spots – or a combination of both – you can shine a light on problem-solving and continue to do your good work even better.

Beth Anne Rankin, Ed.D.
With professional experience ranging from the Governor’s Office and State Treasury to foundations, higher education, small business, K12, and nonprofits, Dr. Beth Anne Rankin infuses 20 years of executive and organizational expertise into her consulting work.

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