Bright Spots 101: A Q&A with Root’s Sam Need and Kari Terzino

“Bright spots” does not equal best practices. We sat down with research managers Kari Terzino and Sam Need for a behind-the-scenes look at the process and methods Root uses to uncover the “secret sauce” of your high performers. Here’s what they had to say.

If you could describe your job in one sentence, what would you say?

 KT: We help companies become the best versions of themselves by shifting the curve of performance to the right and making everyone better.

SN: We help improve the performance or solve the problem of a specific office or role without the organization having to hire anyone new or create new infrastructures – people just need to do things slightly differently. And that’s where we come in. We study what’s going on, find the patterns leading to success, and boil them down into a simple plan that makes it easy for people to implement. (Sorry, that was more than one sentence!)

Why do you think bright spots are so important?

 KT: The bright spots methodology always gives you fresh insight. Sometimes we confirm a hypothesis to a problem and other times we completely destroy it, but either way you get valuable information you wouldn’t have otherwise to help fix a problem.

SN: Bright spots research is a great way for companies to stay competitive by finding out exactly where they’re excelling and uncovering new tactics that can improve the bottom line. Additionally, bright spots help make change feel possible because we synthesize tons of information to identify only the most critical levers to success. This is important because if you give people 100 competencies to improve on they might get demotivated figuring out which tasks to focus on. If you give them 10, they are a lot more likely to change because they don’t feel it’s impossible.

What do you do as part of the Bright Spots team?

 KT: Sam and I are both research managers. We help with the upfront planning, lead the fieldwork, and oversee the analysis of all the data.

 During fieldwork, we go to multiple locations and conduct interviews with the same number of employees at the same levels. We also document our observations with detailed photographs.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about bright spots?

SN: Most companies think they can find bright spots on their own. For example, some leaders simply use their gut instincts for policy changes. But our process is extremely in-depth, data-driven, and progressive. It’s a specific expertise we bring to the table.

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Why can’t organizations find their own bright spots?

KT: We approach each project with a very scientific lens and objective perspective. Plus, we bring an extremely rigorous and in-depth methodology to the table. This allows us to come up with very valuable and insightful patterns that most companies aren’t likely to find on their own.

SN: Most companies solve problems by having the leadership develop a solution, when really they should be studying the people doing the work – allowing the wisdom of the best employees to impact the way everyone works.

How do you determine where to go in the field? Which locations? What drives these decisions?

KT: After working with the client to determine the metric they want to improve, we review their locations or teams (branches, hotels, team leaders, units, etc.) to look at the distribution of performance and divide them into groups – the true high performers on the metric and the mid and low performers.

We consider several variables to make sure certain sites are not outliers due to factors a site cannot control. For example, for a recent hotel project, we looked at high performers on a culture measure. But to qualify as a potential site, the General Manager needed to be in place for at least two years, the hotel couldn’t have any renovations at the time or within the past year, the property had to be at least four years old, etc. This is ensures we learn from stable high performers. So, even though a site might be the highest on our target metric, they might not be eligible if they don’t meet other criteria.

What are the things you’re looking for when you’re in the field?

KT: While doing fieldwork, we’re always checking the protocols and interview guides we’ve created for the project to ensure we’re getting the information we want and need. If necessary, we make adjustments – cut out something that is redundant, add another probe to make sure we’re getting enough detail on a topic, insert a new question to explore something we hadn’t considered that could be important, etc. After each site visit, the researcher writes a summary of the interviews and on-site experiences. This helps us begin to identify preliminary themes across the sites and across the high, mid, and low performers, but all of the real analysis takes place after the fieldwork is completed.

SN: It’s important for us to also look at micro-social interactions, body language, and small bits of conversation that happen in between more formal types of conversation. I care as much about what people say when they are finding their seats in a room as I do about what they talk about during the meeting.

Do you form a hypothesis ahead of time about what you expect to find?

KT: I think a client always has some hypotheses about what we’ll hear and learn, and some of our interview questions are based on this. Given our level of expertise in some areas, such as hospitality, we also expect to hear certain things from specific departments or roles. But, by design most of our questions are exploratory and focus on gathering information. If we were always trying to prove or disprove something, I suspect we’d miss a lot of important steps or processes or information. Of course, we have thoughts or theories about certain things in every project – but we’re also trying to figure out what we/the client doesn’t know or understand.

SN: Because this is objective research, we always keep an open mind and try not to be biased towards anything upfront. One of our best services to a client is that we don’t have an emotional stake in how we think about their business.

What do you think is the most interesting or rewarding part of your work?

SN: I like how we give employees of all levels the chance to be in the spotlight. For example, if we’re working with a retail store, we’ll likely focus our time with the retail associates. It might be someone’s first or second job, yet they have the opportunity to make a real difference in the way their company is run because we’re seeking insights and opinions specifically from them – not from the higher-ups.

What does an organization need to do to cascade these learnings across the organization?

KT: This is an important question, and it varies from business to business. A pilot program is the most effective way to cascade learnings. When we uncover bright spots, we often create a pilot program for mid performers to see how the metric changes when they adopt routines and behaviors of the high performers. We make sure the pilot includes very specific steps to implement so people feel it’s possible to succeed. When a successful program is in place, the client rolls out these routines and behaviors to the rest of the organization so everyone is informed about what they should be doing, along with why and how it’s beneficial for them and the business at large. 

Any parting words on the benefits of doing a bright spots project?

KT: I think companies can get caught up with implementing the “sexiest” or most innovative technique to up their game, when all they really need to do to is help more people follow the lead of their best people. And that’s our job – to figure out what’s working. Because we’re not the boss, people open up to us and give us this really valuable information.

SN: If you’re still a bit hazy as to what we do, think of us as doctors. We visit sick patients (companies with a problem) and investigate to find out what’s working and what’s not. We help organizations solve a challenge they haven’t been able to crack.