Archive January 25, 2014

Problem Solving through ‘Bright Spots’

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at a leadership conference about applying a ‘Bright Spots’ approach to tackling problems and have received a number of requests for further information around the idea.

At the outset, I should make it clear to everyone that I unfortunately did not come up with this idea. Rather, the approach was popularized by Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Switch’.

Solving Pumpkin-Related Problems

In the book, Dan and Chip Heath describe a seemingly counterintuitive way of looking at problems which is centred on replicating success, rather than solving problems.

Take my hobby of growing pumpkins.

There I am, trying my best to grow a prize pumpkin so as to decimate my neighbour Jim in the annual harvest festival.

But lo and behold after 3 months, six out of the ten pumpkins have barely grown at all and another two appear to have ceased to live.

But I’m determined. After all Jim couldn’t be more deserving of a trouncing at the pumpkin festival.

So I begin to try and figure out the problem, checking the acidity of the soil, ensuring my automated watering system is working, my gate is locked to keep Jim out and ensuring there is sufficient horse manure to keep my infant pumpkins thriving past their awkward teenage years.

But here’s the problem, as I’m spending time chastising my dog for the teeth marks on the watering system, which Jim assured were not his, I’m diverting all my attention into solving pumpkin-related problems, rather than trying to replicate pumpkin-related success.

Put simply, I’m ignoring those two pumpkins which appear to be thriving.

And in a nutshell this is the idea behind the ‘Bright Spots’ approach: don’t solve problems, copy success.

Bright Spots and Fighting Child Malnutrition

It is also a helpful reminder in the world of international development where we can become obsessed with the process of solving problems, when the solutions might have already presented themselves through past success.

In fact, this was one of the very examples cited in their book. Specifically, in 1990, Jerry Sternin arrived in Vietnam with the ‘Save the Children Fund’ with a brief to ‘fix child malnutrition in 6 months’.

Now Jerry, knowing very little about Vietnam, knew a lot about the causes of malnutrition; poor sanitation, poverty and a lack of clean water.

But how does a person make a dent on these problems in 6 months?

Taking the context as given, he started looking for ‘Bright Spots’.

He did this by touring village after village and looking for children who were less malnourished than their peers, despite facing the same context of poverty and poor sanitation.

From this he then started to build a picture of what the mothers of these children were doing differently.

What he found was striking. You see, the accepted wisdom was in order for children to avoid malnutrition their parents should feed them soft foods with clean rice two times a day.

Yet the mothers of the ‘Bright Spot’ children were doing something quite different.

Firstly, instead of feeding their children two times a day, they were feeding the same amount of food over four smaller meals, allowing more nutritional value to be taken from the same amount of food.

Secondly, they were supplementing the meals with locally available food (such as crabs and shrimp which lived in the rice paddies), which provided an additional source of protein and nutrients.

Armed with this knowledge, he started to implement cooking classes run by the ‘Bright Spot’ mothers to cement the knowledge.

The results?

Six months after Sternin had come to the Vietnamese village, 65% of the kids were better nourished and stayed that way.

Later researchers who gathered independent data found that even children who hadn’t been born when Sternin left were as healthy as the kids he’d reached directly.

The program was expanded and today has reaches 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages (Source).

Explaining the Outliers

But the significance of this approach extends far beyond pumpkins and shrimp.

In fact in the world of economics this idea couldn’t be more relevant, as we are often looking for general relationships. Take the relationship between how happy somebody says they are and wealth provided in the figure below:

Life satisfaction tends to increase with GDP per capita

Source

Now for the many of you who have made it your life’s work to avoid the painful process of interpreting graphs, the key idea to get out of this is that as a general rule individuals in more wealthy countries have greater levels of life satisfaction.

Genius right?

But we can clearly see that this isn’t true for all countries. For instance, Argentina’s average income is as high as New Zealand’s, but they’re not very satisfied.

On the other hand, China is much poorer than France, but has higher levels of satisfaction.

In the world of statistics we might call China and New Zealand ‘outliers’, as they’re countries which seem to be bucking the trend.

Now although this is not very surprising, given that we all know that money doesn’t buy happiness (although it helps), it does provide a great example of how we might look to use the approach, even in the (sometimes) boring world of economics.

Instead of trying to get more happiness through raising incomes, why not examine what makes people in New Zealand and China more satisfied to see if we can replicate it?

Want to develop professionally?

Perhaps build on your strengths, rather than focusing on the identified weaknesses.

 

Making a new year’s resolution?

Focus on those you’ve managed to keep and nurture success.

 

Growing pumpkins?

Steal your neighbours pumpkin seeds, rather than sabotaging their watering system.

 

“Don’t solve problems, replicate success.”

If you would like to read more about this idea, you can pick their book up here.

Swatting at Magpies

At the outset, I’d like to wish everybody subscribed to my blog a happy new year. I personally am not overly superstitious, but it appears to me that ending a year with ’13’ in it can only be a good thing.

So to celebrate, I am going to post a slightly edited version of the first speech I gave to Toastmasters.Obviously I’ve used a bit of poetic license when giving this one, but they’re both based on true events.

 

Good evening.

Tonight I’d like to make my introductions to the audience. You see in addition to this being my entry into the humorous speech contest, it is also my first as a member of toastmasters.

My name, is Giles.

Giles Dickenson-Jones to be precise.

And with a name like ‘Giles’ you might think that I know which piece of cutlery to use first during my dinners with the highest echelons of society.You may imagine that I spend my nights smoking a cigar in a leather arm chair, in a brandy-fuelled daze.

You might even imagine that my weekends are packed to the brim with polo, murder mysteries and wine tastings.

However, tonight I’d like to start my time at Toastmasters by making my introduction in a way which illustrates exactly who this new face called ‘Giles’ is.

You see, Giles is the guy who brings cider and wedges to a formal meeting of toastmasters.

What I mean by this is that no matter how hard I might try to be the Giles that you expect.

The awkwardness of the Giles that I am will always prevail.

 

Now, although as an economist you might assume that I can skate past this claim without a shred of evidence, let me introduce you to exhibit A:

October 1990

Stuarts Point Public School, New South Wales.

Me, a small, not particularly popular child with hair bleached white from the sun.

It’s recess, and although young, I was wise for my age, having already discovered the unmistakable sting of the bull ant, speed of the goanna and roar of the koala.

But until that fateful recess in October, I had not known the peck of the magpie.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, being more than an hour from Sydney means that I can claim an affinity with Animals, not unlike crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin.

However, even I had not been prepared for the aerial terror of the native Australian magpie.

Nor was I able to hide my fear after my first encounter.

Week after week.

Day after day

Recess after recess

The Magpie sought out my bright white hair, like the target that it was.

So I hatched a plan.

But this wasn’t any plan, it was the playground equivalent of the great escape.

And It required, guts, determination and access to the sport shed.

 

In the words of Sun Tsu:

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.

Whether he was talking about magpies is still subject to debate and may never be fully known.

But as a child seeking to become a man, I knew this was the key to victory.

For myself I knew my greatest weakness was my hair.

In fact it was my Achilles heel.

But what was the magpies?

Well, under cover of darkness with access to a library I found out….

 

Anything solid you could swing above your head.

 

And so there I was, in the middle of the playground, wearing a comically oversized hockey mask, wildly swinging a metal baseball bat over my head, while the bemused teachers and students looked on.

I can assure you since that day, magpies and I have had an unspoken understanding.

They don’t bother me and I don’t swing inanimate objects at them.

 

Exhibit B:

I’ve never been the sporty type.

I know what you’re thinking, ‘oh come on Giles, nobody is that good looking by accident’.

But hear me out.

 

God may have had a plan for my exceptional good looks, but it’s no fault of my own.

You see, throughout my school life, my least popular pastime was always sport.

Although I’m not sure where exactly this came from, it may very well have been from one of my first swimming carnivals.

 

Now let me set the scene.

There I was, a suitably awkward child of 10, dressed in my standard issue speedo.

As was typical at the Macksville public pool during that time of year, the sun was blaring almost as intensely as the hundreds of children crowding the grandstand.

 

Fortunately for me, underneath the grandstand there was respite.

So there I was.

Hiding under the stand with my friend, strategically avoiding as much physical activity as possible.

 

That is, unless it involved trying to escape outside from teachers by squeezing ourselves under the back wall.

Unfortunately, apparently I had a head which was sufficiently larger than my friends.

Large enough, to thwart my escape.

 

So there I was, ten years old with my head stuck between a slab of cement and a corrugated iron wall.

Hundreds of kids screaming, just loud enough to swamp my whimpers as I attempted to absolve myself of the corrugated iron and concrete prison through force.

But, it was to no avail.

 

The only choice that remained was to do the unthinkable and bring our Narnia to an end.

So my friend fetched the teacher.

 

Unfortunately, the adult world’s solution was no more sophisticated than the human equivalent of WD40.

What I mean by this, is that to add insult to injury, the teacher proceeded to pour inexpensive moisturizer on my head in an attempt to ‘slide’ me from the concrete’s clutches.

 

So there I was, lying in the hot sun, with hundreds of my schoolmates watching me.

My face covered in moisturizer and my eyes filled with tears.

 

But at this point, I would like to make something clear to you.

This story real…

In fact it’s so real, that all the time this was happening somebody was filming it.

 

That’s right.

In a time when portable cameras were far from common.

Somebody had the foresight to bring one.

And thank God for that. Otherwise they would have missed what was next:

 

A fire-crew and the Jaws of Life.

So there I was, lying on my side, dressed in my speedos, head covered in moisturizer with tears in my eyes, a jaws of life, a fire crew, hundreds of my friends watching and somebody was recording it.

 

This, my friends was the thing of nightmares and perhaps why sports has never been my thing.

But this is very much the guy who brings wedges to a toastmasters meeting.

And this is who I am.

Try as I might to be the Giles you might expect, the real Giles is still swatting at magpies in the playground.

Thank you.