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Business Officer Magazine

The Alter Ego of Problem Solving

Rather than fixating on what is wrong with your organization, Dan Heath suggests looking for the bright spots that can be replicated and expanded.

By Karla Hignite

Most of us want to fix what's broken. That can be a positive response, but it should not be our sole approach, according to general session presenter Dan Heath, co-author of best-sellers Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick. Heath is also a senior fellow at Duke University's CASE Center and a founder of the Change Academy, a program designed to help social-sector leaders accelerate and scale their good works.

For many leaders, the tendency to focus on problems and how to solve them is so instinctive that it can blind them to asking the question of what is working already and to doing more of that, suggested Heath. Identifying these "bright spots" seems logical, yet most organizations spend 95 percent of their time on troubleshooting and only 5 percent on trying to replicate their successes, he added.

This is not to disparage problem solving—the "conjoined twin" of a focus on the positive, argued Heath. One approach can be as powerful and useful as the other, but since bright spots often play a contributing role in the solution, it is critical to exercise both biceps, insisted Heath. "While putting out fires may be part of your job, this mindset can take over if you let it. You have to intentionally carve time out of your schedule to look for what is working."

The Positive Deviant

One way to characterize a bright spot is as the positive deviant in a pool of data, noted Heath. Consider a typical college or university development office. If you are managing this process, you can look at the amount that each employee raised during the previous quarter, and then cumulatively throughout the year, suggested Heath. The tendency might be to identify those individuals bringing in the least and focus on setting goals for their improvement. "The theory is that you don't need to worry about those who are having the most success. Yet, what if you spent more time studying what your overachievers are doing differently—how they are spending their time—and then using this information to help everyone on the team do better?" asked Heath.

The same approach can be used in change management and employee engagement initiatives, Heath noted. Many organizations in recent years have undergone significant budget cuts and weathered either employee layoffs or a moratorium on salary increases, or both—in many cases resulting in a big hit on employee morale, explained Heath. Yet, even in these instances there are usually some employees who manage to remain happy and positive about their work. So, the exercise becomes one of drilling down to learn what is behind the mindset of those bright-spot employees to see whether and how their attitudes might be adopted by others.

Heath recounted results of research done to analyze the huge turnover among a group of hospital nurses. In this scenario, the real question to ask was not, "Why are all these nurses leaving?" Rather, he said, it's better to learn why the other nurses are staying. "We found that what kept the nurses loyal to the organization was a sense of professional identify and their love of being caregivers." That became a directive signal, said Heath. "Part of the solution became identifying what programs we could add to boost retention." In this case, incorporating a mentorship program reduced turnover by 20 percent—simply by shifting outlook and exercising the left bicep versus the right, Heath concluded.

Success deserves a leader's analysis as well as a doling out of accolades, argued Heath. "Take your successes and study them. That said, don't assume that the 20 percent who, in this case represent your bright spot, are totally different from anyone else" he warned. "Bright spots are not magic, and it would be misleading to suggest that you can continue to make the rest of your employees happy about not getting a raise. If you seek to lead a group in a particular direction, the challenge becomes finding which levers you can pull to make it a bit better and more palatable for everyone." 

Motivating Change

For every change initiative, a primary concern becomes how to get everyone on board. "The good news is that being a leader doesn't mean you have to single-handedly come up with all the great ideas," said Health. "What you must do is find the bright spots and set up circumstances for additional success."

That's not to say that change isn't a challenge. While there are huge changes that many take on willingly (getting married, having children) that can bring happiness, and certain changes (technology, fashion) that most welcome for the convenience and variety they bring, much of the change in our lives can be difficult to accept or accomplish, said Heath.

"What psychology tells us about why change can be so hard is that we all have a split in our brains," says Heath. "We make a diet resolution to eat healthier and to exercise, yet later that same night we find ourselves craving a deep-dish pizza." This conflict is baked into our brains such that the rational, conscious system that plans and analyzes is bombarded by the emotional, unconscious system that gets a whiff of that Cinnabon in the airport and throws us off course.

Worse than the fact that these two factions are constantly vying for our attention is that it's really not a fair fight." The emotional system always wields more power, said Heath. "It's like a huge elephant living in our heads, with this well-intentioned little person riding on the back of the elephant trying to rationally rein in this beast. The goal is to successfully align these two sides of our brains."

Change at the organizational level brings a whole new challenge, because of the attempt to affect group behavior and assumptions, suggested Heath. A primary mistake many leaders make is attempting to motivate people with information. "We create these great PowerPoint slides with data and charts and send memos with bullet points. But who do we think we are we talking to?

"It's certainly not the elephant, who seems pretty comfortable with the way things were working last week."

Sometimes It Takes More

Beyond the issue of motivation, leaders must also consider whether their change challenge is a direction issue (people don't know what is expected of them or how to proceed), or a pathway problem (there are too many obstacles in the way). To clarify these issues, here are some actions that Heath suggested.

  • Provide clear direction. As part of building a framework for instituting behavior change, leaders must first provide individuals with clear direction about where to go and how to get there. Sometimes this entails breaking change into a series of manageable or logical steps to ease what may seem daunting when looking at the big picture, noted Heath.

Boil the strategic down to the tactical, and throughout the process, remind others of what they've already conquered so they can sense the momentum. "Most people are more easily motivated if they see some quick results."

  • Motivate your people. No change journey will go anywhere or last very long without the energy and passion of your people, argued Heath. To say that information is not enough to motivate change is not a diatribe against data, but don't discount the power of appealing to emotion as a force for changing behavior. He suggested a three-step model for motivating employees:

1. Tap motivation. Where does motivation already exist within your organization? This naturally occurring resource might represent 10 percent of your workforce. Consider how you can you enlist these folks to motivate change in others.

2. Spark motivation. What would drive motivation beyond those who are already on board? Perhaps others simply need to envision an initiative in a new light. Consider also how to create conditions for a particular behavior to spread, letting people spend more time among those who support change to allow a critical mass in favor of change to grow and gain steam.

3. Sustain motivation. How can you keep your people moving forward following the achievement of early goals? At some point, goals may need to shift along with any anticipated payoff in order to keep employees engaged. Consider also how to encourage collegiality and a sense of team effort that can increase the long-term viability of change efforts.

  • Clear the pathway. Finally, increase the likelihood of a successful change initiative by removing any barriers and cultivating a culture conducive to the change you seek. For change to take hold, it must seem within reach.

Sometimes an obstacle may be blocking the path that keeps even well-intentioned or motivated people from tackling change. A small tweak to the environment can often solve what you may think is a motivation problem, said Heath.

For instance, some leaders are too quick to attribute inertia to the generational differences of employees. However, what might look like resistance to change may be a lack of practice with a new process or a new technology, said Heath. "Any correlation between age and resistance to change could be caused by the accumulation of habits over time. Understandably, it can be awkward to suddenly start doing something differently than you have done it all your life," he explained.

"This is where leaders must help make the way forward not only evident, but also ultimately doable. Clearing the path of obstacles may include equipping your employees with the training and tools they need to tackle change."

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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