Differentiation: How a Project Professional Survives in a High Performance Work Culture

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Life PreserverWe live in a land of bigger is better, faster is more, stronger is best, and working harder is a way of life. In the world of projects, bigger may not meet the actual needs of the business, faster prevents quality requirements, stronger damages relationships, and working harder burns you out. Yet so many corporations embrace the concept of differentiation as a way of getting to be bigger, better, faster, and stronger regardless of the obvious impacts to their organizations and their people. First a little background on differentiation and then I will discuss some of the personal survival tips I used when working in a high performance work culture (HPWC).

What is differentiation? Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric) stated it was a model to transform companies from mediocre to outstanding with the understanding that the company will suffer when people are treated equally. It is a system that allows managers to make a clear distinction between top and bottom performing businesses and/or people and then, cultivate the strong and cull the weak. Sounds a bit harsh does it not? Cull? Really? This is a system you either love or hate – there is really no in-between, at least not that I have seen or experienced. It operates on the 20-70-10 principal; reward the top 20% performers, say thank you to the middle 70%, and put the bottom 10% on performance plans and generally, at some future point, usher them out the door (sometimes immediately).

The top 20% get all the love and pay for performance in this model – they make the company. I actually have no problem with that part of the model. People that perform at high levels should get paid for it. However, the model tends to break down in three areas:

1. It breeds competition, which contrary to popular belief, is not always a good thing.

2. The middle 70% are often not given the coaching and mentoring they need to succeed, to get to the top 20%, or even maintain their status. In fact, often they work themselves to the brink of stress trying to achieve the top 20% and when they fall just short what do they get? A thank you for trying and see you next year, which equates to a burnt out, bitter employee. One would think that they would still get something for their efforts, but rarely does it work that way in a true high performance model.

3. The bottom 10% in many organizations are not given the chance to prove themselves fairly (they often suffer from unrealistic expectations imposed upon them) and more importantly, are not encouraged or worked with to find the right role for them in the organization. Out the door they go. Let me be very clear, I find this abhorrent. And don’t get me started on what happens when there are no more bottom 10% employees. I think you know what happens – there is always a bottom 10% even when they are great employees. Then, there is the 10-70-20 model, the 5-70-25 model, but I digress.

How does one survive this model? After all, we are paid to do a job and just shut up right?

It is not enough to diagram better, write requirements faster, plan more accurately or improve on any of the day-to-day activities you do on your projects. Everyone is trying to do the same thing. In order to survive and excel you need courage, lots and lots of courage.

Courage Survival tip #1 Build relationships for visibility and influence.

Network like you have never networked before in your company. Remember it is the people you work with that provide input into your performance and the same people you need to influence to get what you want when you have no authority. Visibility is key to excelling in the HPWC. You must build relationships with people you do not know, people that you have difficulty working with, people that are much higher up on the food chain, and more. If you burned a bridge – build it back up. COURAGE! Afraid of getting yelled at? Ask them what they need and how you can meet their expectations for the future. COURAGE! Get nervous around management? Have courage in the fact that they are people just like you, putting their pants on one leg at a time, picking up kids from school, and deciding what to have for dinner. Approach them and talk to them. If they have time they will talk to you. If they are good leaders, they will make the time. You cannot influence if you do not build your network.

Courage Survival Tip #2 Get training.

Get training at all costs – knowledge is power in the HPWC. SME be praised! Been thinking about it, but did not take it seriously before? In the HPWC it is key to success. Don’t have internal resources to get trained? Go outside the company for your specialized training. Do a presentation for management on the benefits and what you bring both to the table and back to the company. Utilize free training from PMI and IIBA and other social organizations. Learn more about your internal systems in your spare time. I sometimes wonder if I have spent more time in training than actually working, but it has certainly worked for me over the years.

Courage Survival Tip #3 Political savvy.

Not in terms of the presidential election, but in your corporate culture. Know who the biggest influencers are in the company. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times, because what you hear and see today will help you at some point in the future. When in large meetings ask respectful questions and challenge appropriately, focusing on what is good of the company and it’s strategic direction (don’t forget to offer solutions too). Why? Visibility. It shows you are a leader in your domain and that your number one priority is also theirs – the company. Courage.

Courage Survival Tip #4 Find your niche.

You are probably thinking “I already know what my job is” and that is probably true, but you must find your niche nonetheless. Your niche is where other people fear to tread, the area in which you are good at, the area that gives you visibility, and where you have subject matter expertise that no one else has. That one thing, your differentiator is important. It builds your reputation and when management goes to calibrate employees in the HPWC, reputation makes a big difference (even if you did not do as much as you could).

Yes, it is a competition and with these few tips I hope you can not only survive, but succeed. You absolutely do not have to like differentiation, but if you work in an HPWC you must accept it while you are there. I want everyone to be successful.  I believe there are better maturity models where companies focus on strengths and work with individuals to find the right roles, but in the meantime – brave heart and lots of courage! If you have worked in an HPWC please share your survival and success tips – thank you!

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