I’m going to come clean with you. I could never fly a fighter combat jet. I am blessed with the kind of brain that is too simple to respond to on-the-spot decisions that the job requires. But looking back on 20 years of military service, I’ve had the chance to live and work in close quarters with fighter pilots and their support teams. I have gained insights into high performing teams and the sheer potential of the human mind – and the concept of ‘bright spot’ thinking.

In this article I want to explore the dynamics of bright spot thinking, and how individuals, teams and workplaces can use this strategy to improve their performance.

Fighter combat training

I’ve delivered applied human fatigue risk management to Australia’s Fighter Combat Instructor Course (FCI) for many years, to help future top guns focus and monitor fatigue throughout their training. With an average of just ten pilot FCIs graduating every two years, there is limited room for error among participants during the course; the bottom line is that trainees with low awareness of the impact of fatigue don’t pass.

One of the more fascinating strategies that I have seen employed by top guns and their trainers is bright spot thinking. When dealing with a complex task quickly, or with limited resources, it is the practice of looking for the positives in a sea of negatives, and extrapolating them into operable solutions.

An intense job

The life of top guns, as they are known (and I’m sure you are currently picturing Tom Cruise in a spray jacket and aviator sunglasses) is nothing like as sexy as in the movies, but their jobs are no less intense. Their lives are marked by 2am mornings, long days, and short nights, and they’re fuelled by a sense of duty, personal pride, and concentration on their mission. Whether they are training, or in active combat zones, a day in the life of a top gun is nothing like the devil-may-care stereotype you might imagine.

Unlike most workplaces, in a fighter pilot team, particularly during the intense top gun training school, each team member is continuously monitored for their level of fatigue, which is a completely normal part of their workplace practice. By the time they are fully trained they are as used to their monitoring regime as they are to breakfast – and they understand just how that fatigue affects their performance each and every day.

While we may not be similarly asked to perform death-defying acts of bravery in the line of our duties, we can learn so much from how fighter pilots work, and how they think.

How top guns see bright spots

In 1990, when confronted with a complex child malnutrition problem across disparate areas of Vietnam, international public health expert Jerry Sternin thought about the problem differently. Instead of focussing on the many areas that were critically malnourished and what needed ‘fixing’, including his teams’ very limited resources, Jerry turned the problem on its head. He sought to find small pockets where nutrition was working, which he used to inform the response to the broader malnutrition problem.

His team used what they learnt from the positive examples in some geographical locations to overcome significant obstacles in others. With the deployment of resources that focussed on obtaining dynamics on par with the higher performing zones (where children were healthier), six months later, 65 per cent of children were better nourished.

He called this process ‘bright spot’ thinking.

Take Jerry’s six months, and turn it into a matter of seconds. The concept of a bright spot remains the same for fighter pilots, but the criticality is far greater. Your plane is going down due to an unknown mechanical error, and you’re charged with doing everything you can to save this important machine before ejecting. You have a minor black-out due to extreme g-forces and a lack of sleep following days of operations and morale issues from a recent team casualty. You are required to make a series of spot-decisions to save your life. What do you do?

The broad aim of bright spot thinking is to avoid focusing on the negatives, and instead look for solutions that could be in plain view. Finding a bright spot such as a working communications link could help the pilot rule out an electrical failure quickly, while a full fuel gauge may help the pilot determine if engine systems are broadly healthy, and that structural damage should be the focus. While these assumptions may not be accurate in the first instance, in life-or-death situations they can be our best possible chance we have with the information in front of us.

Top Gun pilots

Top Guns at work c/- aviationspotters

Bright spots at work

What I’ve learnt is that we can and should apply bright spot thinking beyond major, complex problems and/or high pressure situations. In addition to top guns, I’ve worked with managers across the military, government and private companies who have at times become overwhelmed because of excessive workloads, and low team morale.

Surprisingly, the levels of stress experienced by many individuals in common workplaces are comparable to those that fighter pilots experience when going through training exercises. While most of us may not be dealing in comparatively high-stress or time-critical roles, we have the same personal pride, and react similarly to ensuring our jobs are done right in our own environment.

This practice has often led managers to become stuck in a rut of continually seeing the negatives, and reacting to problems at a case-by-case basis. This kind of system quickly embeds and prevents positive and proactive improvements to the broader systems at their workplace. A focus on bright spot thinking for managers, in which they focus on what’s going well and why, is in my mind a no-brainer for every office.

Surprisingly, the levels of stress experienced by many individuals in common workplaces are comparable to those that fighter pilots experience when going through training exercises.

Applying bright spot thinking at home

In our personal lives, we can also experience complex problems and apply bright spot thinking. Take a child’s school report: What would you do if your son or daughter came home with one A, four Bs and one F? With humans hard-wired to want to resolve problems first, many of us would focus on the F, start questioning why our child is failing, and ask for isolated answers to the F problem. Some of us might even negatively reinforce the outcome of the F grade, and ground our child for the poor result. Similar to the fighter pilot focusing on the red lights and beeping noises, you may be missing the crucial key to improvement in the F class – simply building off good scores in the other disciplines.

Asking your child about the environment that enabled the A to be achieved, and why that environment helped produce such a positive outcome would be bright spot thinking. What  was different about the environment and conditions that resulted in the A and the F, and how can we work to embed the positive environment into the negative one?

Organisational bright spots

We can also take a step back and look at bright spots within our organisations, particularly when we try to tackle the complex problem of organisational change. To go back to the FCI as an example, the genuine commitment to the precision and resilience of fatigue management systems is some of the best I’ve seen in any industry, which makes it a bright spot in an otherwise uniquely exhausting environment for staff and trainees alike.

With down-time periods no more than just a few hours, shared mental models and continuous fatigue monitoring allow crew members to maintain very good situational awareness (SA) and resilience regarding the consequence of errors, even when fatigue is high. It is without a doubt why I believe the FCI course continues to graduate some of the best trained pilots in the world.

At both a micro level with individuals and tasks, and at a macro level with team structures and performance, you should be looking for the systems that work within your organisation, and build on them to find your solutions. Similarly, if you’re a safety manager struggling to get your head above water at work, look for the bright spots. If you can’t see any within your own workplace then find another workplace that you believe is performing better than yours. In my professional life, I’ve been able to pick up tips on better management simply by being around best-practice teams, before I’ve even seen the results of their work!

And for anyone coping with cultural drag during a time of organisational change, I hear you.

There are a large number of activities that might not be going so well, there’s likely to be an increased workload and additional tasks necessary to make the change happen, and you may find yourself wondering how to break away. Focusing the team on the small but gradual successes, particularly when surrounded by multiple challenges, becomes critical in winning trust and managing change effectively. Finding bright spots empowers individuals and teams to better tackle the change they are facing.

In my professional life, I’ve been able to pick up tips on better management simply by being around best-practice teams, before I’ve even seen the results of their work!

What top guns can teach us

We all have the capacity to take a complex set of problems, and look for bright spots out there to help us perform at a higher level. I encourage you and your teams to have a think about this in your next meeting, or team planning session, and think about how fighter pilots may be doing the same thing right at that moment.

In my next blog, I’m going to delve further into the FCI program, and how leaders develop trust among personnel. I look forward to sharing that shortly, and hearing from you about how you, your team, or your organisation has identified bright spots to work from!

I would also like to thank Mark Jessop (http://aviationspottersonline.com/) for the photos and Dan and Chip Heath for introducing me to Bright Spots (http://heathbrothers.com/books/switch/).

All the best for a great weekend,

Ben