April 22, 2016

Reflections on brightspot’s first 5 years

brightspot Culture

Introduction. It’s an exciting time for brightspot! As we begin our 6th year, we can look back on five years of helping  clients transform their spaces, services, and organizations while growing into a company that is setting a new standard for how a business should operate in the 21st century. We can also look ahead to growing the team, moving into a new office that will be brightspot’s home, maturing our systems and structures, and maintaining our commitment to our learning and development. Let’s get started.

Reflections on brightspot’s purpose, offerings, and impact. brightspot guides organizations to their future. We use an engaging process to help our clients reimagine their organizations, reinvent their service offerings, and rethink their spaces to improve the experiences of their customers and staff. We operate at this niche intersection because these three areas are not only connected, but you can’t succeed at one if you’re failing at another:

  • Organizations of all shapes, sizes, and sectors are trying to better connect their people, move faster, and do more with less – how can any organization progress in these areas without considering who they are, what they offer, how people work, and the spaces they work in?
  • Space, when planned through the right process, can be a tool for organizational change – rather than changing the workplace and hoping people work differently, what if you empowered and trained them to?
  • The staff, services, and activities within a space shape people’s experiences as much as the space itself – what would a library be without experts to consult with, workshops and events to attend, or information to access?

To help clients answer these questions, we designed a unique kind of organization – a mash-up of a management consultancy, an architecture firm, and a design innovation firm. We are a multi-disciplinary group with drive and curiosity. We help people and organizations grow and connect – to information, ideas, places, and each other. As we do this, we model the practices of what a 21st century organization should be: engaging and empowering its employees, operating transparently, thriving on internal and external feedback, and sharing profits with and creating ownership within the team.

In doing all this, we aim to set a new standard for how an organization can design itself, develop its people, and help its customers.

Our accomplishments by the numbers: There is a lot to celebrate as we look back on our first five years:

  • We have transformed 56 educational institutions with over 590,000 students in aggregate and 4,285,000 square feet of building, with about half of these projects for libraries
  • We have guided 19 cultural organizations with 35,800,000 collective annual visitors and 2,425,000 square feet
  • We have developed 10 companies with 98,000 employees and over 9,295,000 square feet
  • We have extraordinarily happy clients: of the 47 clients completing the satisfaction survey we send after every project, 92% are “very satisfied” overall and 8% are “satisfied” overall (none are dissatisfied) and across the 30 detailed questions in the survey, the responses are 94% positive, with a stellar net promoter score of 87.5 (Look out USAA!)
  • Of our 88 projects in the last five years, 48% have been repeat work for the same client. Of the projects for new clients, in 57% of them we have been referred by an existing client.
  • We have given 43 conference talks, authored 17 peer-reviewed articles, written 58 blog posts that have been viewed 4,523 times, and welcomed 56,770 visitors to our website, who stay an average 2.3 minutes, in case you’re wondering.
  • In the process, we’ve grown from one founder to 17 brightspotters who make up a diverse, multidisciplinary team with expertise in anthropology, architecture, art history, branding, business strategy, communications, consumer psychology, design research, design management, education management, engineering, human environment relations, interior design, interaction design, landscape architecture, organizational change, and publishing
  • We have grown our revenue 14 fold while remaining profitable every quarter – and sharing the profits with our team every quarter


How we are learning: As we have accomplished all this, perhaps our greatest accomplishment has been building a learning organization. Our structure, our culture, our commitment, and our resources all help us continuously learn and develop:

  • We’ve structured ourselves to be as intentional and goal-oriented as possible. Every year we establish our organizational goals for the year and identify how we can each contribute to them.
  • We’ve created a feedback culture. We survey our clients after every engagement. We debrief after every project. We conduct quarterly 360s within our team and do quarterly performance check-ins to complement annual reviews.
  • We’ve created a helping culture. Every brightspotter is dedicated to helping his or her peers. We’re never too busy for each other.
  • We’ve structured ourselves for learning and growth. We’ve identified the core competencies for brightspotters and the responsibilities by title/role. We’ve created a management team to coordinate our actions in our five core areas: people, operations, offerings, marketing, and insights. We’ve created an advisory board to bring in external advice and accountability.
  • We’re committed to our own learning and development. We conduct weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual sessions. We seek out individual resources, events, and classes to participate in. We’ve worked with a professional development coach since our second year.
  • We’ve created the resources people need to set goals, give/get feedback, learn, help, and share. These include a compilation of our tools and methods; a library of our references; a brightspot “Field Guide” to who we are, what we do, and how we do it; and “style guides” to each of our individual workstyles and preferences (which are informed by Belbin Team Roles).

What we’ve learned: Because of this commitment to learning and development, we’ve learned many lessons over the past five years. Some are big (we need a simple way to scope, deliver and bill for work) and some are small (for unpredictable clients, only schedule half of the time on-site and leave the other half open for surprises). Among these many lessons, three stand out as most important:

    1. Change needs to be phased. We have a lot of ambition. Every increase in scale brings with it changes in our operations. But we can’t change everything at once. We tried that. It was confusing. And stressful. Instead, we now sequence our growth in stages so it’s clear what is stable and what is in flux and why. We call this growing on the diagonal. More on this below.
    2. Leading by example is hard. It takes work to serve as a model for how an organization can design itself, develop its people, and help its customers – to hold ourselves to a higher standard. One of our biggest challenges from the start has been balancing the internal brightspot work this requires with our external client work. It’s easy to see 360s, client surveys, thought leadership, and the like as “extra,” but the moment we do, we’re no longer leading, we’re following.
    3. Turning clients into advocates is key. We are fortunate to have satisfied clients who engage us again and again for projects – and who advocate for us within their organizations and refer us to their peers and colleagues. We’ve realized that the better we equip them to understand, co-create, talk about, and own the work we do together, the better positioned they are to succeed within their organization and the more effective they can be in advocating for brightspot.

How are we growing? On the diagonal. As we think about these lessons, we’ve taken an intentional approach to our steady growth (which has generally alternated between ~20% and ~65% headcount growth year-to-year and 30-50% in revenue growth each year). We grow not for its own sake but to increase the diversity and specialization of our team, to create opportunities for our people to take on more responsibility, and for brightspot to handle larger and increasingly complex engagements that have greater impact. We are growing on the diagonal: evolving our offerings and operations as we scale up and hit key milestones.

This diagonal line looks a lot like an uphill climb. Fortunately, there’s a great invention for moving uphill: stairs! Stair-stepping is our strategy. We are phasing brightspot’s development with vertical and horizontal segments. During horizontal periods, we do new things – test new markets, try new approaches, experiment with new ideas. During vertical periods, we scale up what we are doing by recruiting more brightspotters, sharing and training everyone on common approaches, skills, and tools. We generally alternate directions each year so the focus is clear.

Through 2015 we sustained a long horizontal period. We established our advisory board and management team. We developed new structures for both our internal organization and our fees. We built the foundations of a learning organization and captured key aspects of our culture in the brightspot Field Guide.

This year marks the beginning of a vertical period in which we are focusing on the core of our business –projects that will holistically change spaces, the services offered in them, and how people work in them. We added five new employees in February, strengthening our teams and expanding our expertise, particularly in the areas of organizational development, project management, graphic design, and architecture. We concurrently revamped and expanded our internal learning and development curriculum so we can work with common purpose and methodologies.

How our new workplace will help us get there: Our change in scale triggered a search a new office. Planning our own office has challenged us to practice what we preach – planning and evaluating our new home for ourselves just as we would for a client. We used a participatory process including a survey, a visioning workshop, a floorplay workshop, an interior design workshop, prototyping key features, developing our future norms, and using an ongoing open communication channel on Slack. (More on this in a separate post by two newspotters, our Marketing Coordinator Sinead O’Connor and Strategist Alexis Unis.).

From this process, we established our vision for brightspot’s workplace to be our professional home. In deliberate contrast to our consultant work on the road, we want the office to provide a comfortable retreat that expresses who we are and how we work. It will support different workstyles and diverse modes of work by providing a variety of atmospheres and spaces, including a porch, parlor, salon, study, workshop, den, kitchen, nest, and yard. It is inspired by the theme of a nordic cabin that is clean and minimal but warm and comfortable, a study in contrasts. It will provide buzz without distraction. It will be organic but structured. And it will be green, alive, and growing.

Along the way, we developed new empathy for our clients as we have experienced the delicate balancing act of managing our day-to-day workloads while building our own vision for brightspot’s future and managing the growth and changes in our own organization. For example, when we did our “floorplay” workshop to come up with the layouts together, we had a hard time staying on task and finishing on time, just as our clients often do.

What our future looks like. As we look ahead in the near term, we continue to grow into our organizational structure that distributes responsibility and defines roles so each brightspotter can lead an aspect of the business. We are maturing a project team structure that is optimized for focus and flexibility among consistent and stable teams. We will keep perfecting billing in the flat monthly fee “blocks” that ensure a sustainable workload and simplify our estimating process. We will utilize our management team to oversee the key functional areas of our business: people, offerings, marketing, insights, and operations. We expect to grow incrementally (more in vertical periods) towards a goal of about 30 brightspotters in three years. We will keep leveraging our advisory board to bring in outside insights and accountability.

Over the longer term, we’ll achieve equivalent strategic expertise in the three domains of organizational development and design, service design and delivery, and space programing and planning. This growth will mean greater specialization, scale, and impact. It will mean helping our clients take on the big challenges of our time: In the U.S.:

  • Only 32% of the workforce is engaged (1)
  • Only 41% of college students graduate within 4 years (2)
  • Less than 40% of college freshman are engaged in higher-order learning (3)
  • 40% of high school students are chronically disengaged, and (4)
  • Only 49% of adults participate in the arts annually (5)

To help turn these sobering statistics around, we will have to help people and organizations grow in scale and skill. We will have to help clients and their colleagues connect with each other and with their constituents across geographies, disciplines, and organizations.

And as we do all this, we’ll, embrace the best practices of what a 21st century organization should be: engaging and empowering its employees, operating transparently, thriving on internal and external feedback, and sharing profits with and creating ownership within the team. We will set a new standard for how an organization can design itself, develop its people, and help its customers. We hope you join us for the next five years! It will be quite a ride.

– Elliot


Notes on Sources:

  1. Gallup: State of the American Workforce
  2. US News and World Report
  3. National Survey of Student Engagement
  4. Center for Education Policy at George Washington University
  5. NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (2012)



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