Four ways to use Bright Spots, from Humanities Montana

Ken Egan from Humanities Montana posted a comment to an older post on this blog (“ADEPT in Education”) that we thought was worth highlighting. Here is what he says about the way that they are using bright spots:

I just had a chance to visit with Jim McDonald in person about “Bright Spots” (thanks for coming to Missoula, Jim!). He asked how “Bright Spots” has changed Humanities Montana, and I shared that 1. I personally return to the report at least once a week, mainly to refocus on the essential and to remember courage to lead change; 2. my current board members have discussed the five principles in general terms and specifically how they apply to our recently adopted strategic plan (the report reinforces several of our strategic decisions); 3. we will use “Bright Spots” in orienting new directors in February since it provides a powerful tool for conceptualizing our overall work and gaining traction with our strategic plan; 4. I’ll share the report with participants in Leadership Montana, many of whom lead nonprofit organizations in the state. Thanks for the excellent framework, both inspiring and practical.

Thanks Ken. We love to continue to hear about the ways that people are using it, so please post here or email us at with your story.


Want bright spots tools?

We’ve had a lot of requests for tools that will help you put the bright spots research into action. We’re working on a few, including a brightness self-assessment survey and guide to facilitating a conversation / workshop around bright spots in your own organization. If you want to be sure to be notified when we release these, make sure you are signed up to receive updates from this blog or sign up for our mailing list.

More coming soon!

What do we mean by “non-hierarchical” anyway?

This is a post I wrote for EmcArts:

In a new poll of arts workers, EmcArts finds that non-executive employees of arts organizations under the age of 50 are more motivated to work hard and want to stay in organizations where their ideas are respected and implemented, where they are empowered make decisions, and where they are connected to the artistic mission. Surprise! That may seem like a no-brainer to many of us (including EmcArts, I’m sure). And yet, this data is an important reminder because there are still many organizations out there where these seemingly basic principles—respecting the ideas of others, treating employees as if they matter no matter what age they are or position they are in, fully taking advantage of the available talent in your organization, distributing responsibility and power—are not being practiced. It is even more important because these principles are strongly linked to organizational success.

At Helicon we’ve been studying “bright spots,” cultural organizations that are deemed exceptionally successful by their peers, to find out the secret to their success. We have found that the organizations that are thriving are ones where the leaders empower others and distribute responsibility, cultivate an environment of trust, enable everyone to make a contribution, have transparent decision-making processes, and source good ideas from all levels and parts of the organization. Sound familiar? So, not only does transparent, distributed, empowering leadership make employees happier and more likely to stay, it actually leads to greater organizational success.

As always, though, the devil is in the details. In a bright spots workshop we led recently someone asked, “what do you mean by ‘non-hierarchical leadership’…isn’t hierarchy necessary sometimes?” I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I think at times when we are attempting to right a wrong, we tend to assume the solution is in doing the opposite. I’ve seen the error in this approach first-hand recently in working with an organization that was structured as a collective. Despite the workers’ deep belief in democratic decision-making, they all admitted that their non-hierarchical structure did not work. The decision-making process was belabored and inefficient, and there was no accountability or leadership. Talented people often left the organization in frustration over the challenge at getting good ideas implemented. What’s more, despite the absence of an official hierarchy, an informal power dynamic had taken over, and left many in the group struggling with the same issues revealed in the EmcArts survey—not feeling heard, empowered or respected.

So maybe rather than the hierarchy / no-hierarchy dichotomy we need to ask a question like, “what kind of structures and processes can facilitate our making the best decisions, discovering the best ideas, tapping relevant expertise and working most effectively (and happily) together to realize our mission?” After all, as Ben Cameron points out in his response to our report, “someone in the rehearsal hall has to make the decision on the blocking rather than reaching consensus,” and it is to any organization’s great advantage to respect and utilize knowledge where it exists – including among people of younger generations.

On practice and perfection

We’ve been leading some bright spots workshops lately, which involve arts leaders analyzing their organizations beforehand in a survey and then working some issues that are challenging them by using the bright spots principles. In one of these workshops, Jessica Robinson Love from CounterPULSE asked, “I am curious that the bright spots methodology is all about looking for what is working in the system, and yet when in applying the framework to our own organizations you are asking us to look for what isn’t working. I wonder if there is a way to use the same concept of looking for brightness to the process of developing these bright spots principles?”

I think it is a brilliant question. I don’t have the answer, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it.  I believe in the methodology of looking for what is working and building off of it, and why wouldn’t that apply within an individual organization as well as a system? And yet I also know that sometimes there are blind spots where nothing seems to be working, or disconnects where replicating what is working in one area won’t help us solve a problem in another. For example, if I am really bad at budgeting realistically, can I just double down on my strength in creating compelling theater pieces? Probably not, I’ll just end up deeper in debt. So I think that there is also value in being honest about ones own organizational weaknesses and learning from others who are finding success.

But what Jessica’s question brings up for me in this moment is the need for us to hold both our strengths and challenges in mind at the same time, so that we can approach the practice of improvement from a place of empowerment and capacity rather than deficiency. And this is really the way it is. So far, none of the organizations who have taken the survey are challenged at everything. More importantly, however, every one of them has some strength in each of the five areas (based on the ADEPT qualities in the paper), even if it is an area in which they struggle overall. (Notably, there is also not one organization that has taken the survey that is perfect in every category.) In our next workshop in Seattle we’re going to try to work this more, we’ll see how it goes.

One more thought. Zen master Suzuki Roshi told his students, “You are perfect just as you are. And there is always room for improvement.”  We can be as harsh on our organizational flaws as we are on our personal ones, so I like this way of thinking about organizational evolution. It allows us to engage in honest inquiry about where we can improve, without judgment. It also reinforces what I think is one of the fundamental lessons of this research, which is that we are really talking about “practicing brightness,” not “achieving brightness.” As with any area of mastery, practice is as important for the master as the beginner. There is always room for improvement.


Update from Sno-Isle: Deeply Engaged with Community

The Sno-Isle Library Foundation sent an update on how they are using Bright Spots, specifically the principle of Deeply Engaged with Community. Angelique Leone says:

My Board members were really struck by the Bright Spots that talked about seeing themselves as part of multiple systems, as invested in community, as well as the pursuing meaningful partnerships with others.

From that discussion, I was charged with sharing some of our unique fundraising approaches with other community non-profits (three presentations done; one more scheduled), while Board members are meeting with their counterparts at Everett Public Library to see how we can partner with them as opposed to compete (two meetings and a slew of emails completed).

Also, we charged ourselves with finding new ways of pursuing meaningful partnerships that are part of multiple systems.  We thought that might be a bigger challenge.  However, because Bright Spots is helping us look at things differently, when we read an article about the Little Red Schoolhouse’s Nurse-Family Partnership in the Everett Herald we saw that maybe it didn’t have to be complex or complicated.

I contacted the organization to see if we couldn’t give them (no charge, of course) our Books for Babies kits directly to help reach these families with the importance of early literacy.

We are now partnering with them!  We will be sending them Books for Babies kits for all of their currently enrolled families (100 kits) and we have promised to supply them with kits, in both English and Spanish, for as long as they need or want them.

I love the way they are using the report to engage in deep self-analysis and challenging themselves to see how they can do (even) better. They are really embodying the practice of brightness, which is a constant process.

Focusing on what is working

In a post this week Andrew Taylor talks about his intention to shift his focus from “the large, catastrophic failures” in nonprofit management to “the individuals and organizations who are changing things already, even if only in little ways.” This is, in a nutshell, what the bright spots theory is all about. He links to a great article by Chip and Dan Heath, the authors who first turned us on to Jerry Sternin’s idea of “positive deviance,” i.e. looking for places where things are working.

A bright spot principle a day…

Struggling to figure out how to get your busy board to read and use the bright spots report?    We’re working on a discussion guide and executive summary, among other tools, but until then–how about breaking it down into manageable pieces? Angelique Leone, executive director, and her Board at the Sno-Isle Library Foundation are doing just that. The Board is making one Bright Spot principle the theme for discussion at each monthly meeting.  They use this as a jumping off point to ask themselves how they could be doing things differently to produce results above the norm. Sno-Isle Libraries serves over 20 branches in the Washington state region just north of Seattle. Libraries are among our communities’ most critical cultural resources. We’d love to hear more about how Sno-Isle, or other libraries, are working the bright spot principles to more effectively achieve their purpose.

Angelique also shared the report with the nearby Everett Community Foundation, and all of its board members now have read the report and are using it in a similar fashion.

Thank you to Lisa Arnold at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation for telling us about this. If you are using the framework, share your story with us at