#335 from Innovative Leader Volume 7, Number 4          April 1998

High Performance Patterns Are Individual Phenomena
by Jerry L. Fletcher, Ph.D.

Dr. Fletcher is president of High Performance Dynamics, Inc., a management consulting and training company in San Anselmo, CA (phone 415-454-5200).  He is author of High Performance Patterns:  Discovering the Way People Work Best and Paradoxical Thinking:  How to Profit from Your Contradictions (Berrett Koehler, San Francisco, 1995,1997).

Traditionally, companies have studied the common characteristics of its high performers in a particular type of job, taught others to imitate these characteristics, and expected to get high levels of performance out of their employees. This "imitate-the-top-performers" paradigm is commonplace; however, it is also false. Imitation is merely a step in the direction of high performance and can never by itself enable anyone to get there.

I define "high performance" as the experience of having an activity take off—take on a life of its own. I've been exploring what people actually do when they produce outstanding results. It turns out that:

·           Each person has a high performance pattern.

            Outstanding success isn't accidental, random or lucky. Each individual does distinct things when successful, and these are different from what he or she does when unsuccessful or merely producing workmanlike, acceptable results. There's a unique personal process to achieving outstanding results.

·           Each person has only one high performance pattern.
The process a given person follows in successfully planning and executing, for example, an outstanding project at work, a spectacular home improvement project, and a terrific family vacation will turn out to be the same. People don't use one process for successfully accomplishing something in one part of their lives (e.g., at home) and a different process somewhere else (e.g., at work).

·           Each person's high performance pattern is unique.
No two people have the same process for doing something outstandingly well. While different high performance patterns can be grouped and categorized, the parts of the pattern that are unique and individual make the difference between outstanding success and just grinding out an acceptable result.

It's possible, within most organizations, to be given an assignment and to find a way to do it that's consistent with one's high performance pattern, while still operating within the constraints of the organization. Also, people can use their patterns to find the best place in the organization to maximize their contributions, and shift to it easily, greatly improving results and satisfaction. It doesn't take massive reorganizations or massive retraining of people to bring about major improvements in results. It takes careful matching of people to assignments and careful adjustments in how work is done to fit the success processes of the people doing the work.

Toward Optimal Performance

In most modern businesses, the fundamental management tasks are deploying, motivating and redeploying people quickly and precisely, and getting teams rapidly up to speed. Increasing amounts of work are done in task forces and project teams. People have to be assigned, get up to speed quickly with team members they may have never met before, work in ways that are highly focused and motivated, and then move on to new assignments.

Yet this deployment, motivation and redeployment of people isn't handled systematically. Not surprisingly, people often find themselves in situations that are much less than optimal for making their best contribution. They are misassigned. Their skills don't match what's needed, and they have to scramble to learn new ones, often putting a heavy burden on others in the group who do have the requisite skills. Many times the team just doesn't gel. In some cases members are forced to stay until the completion of the project when they've already made most of their contributions in the early stages. In other cases people are yanked from a team too early, and put on another, or are forced to be part of many teams and are stretched too thin. Under these conditions, the only way to improve matters is to enlist and empower each individual to determine how to maximize his or her contribution, and to take initiative to make it happen.

Dissatisfaction Despite Success

MIS & Co. (names have been changed to mask identities) is a large and rapidly growing consulting firm. More than half of the people have been with the company less than a year. Its growth rate and size were straining the company's structures and processes.

My colleagues and I were hired to help MIS deal with this growth.  We discovered a lot of misassignment or less-than-optimal use of their key resource—their talented people—and we helped get a number of them refocused so they could take initiative to greatly increase their contribution.

Samantha Powers was the head of a very successful MIS team. Its members were so successful, in fact, that when the company needed additional revenue to meet annual targets, it stretched the team's goals. The team responded by meeting them, replacing lost revenue from other teams who fell short of their goals. Yet Samantha was dissatisfied despite her success. Driving herself, she could achieve the goals, but they were no longer providing her with a sense of meaning and purpose. She wanted to get more of a grip on her strengths and how to use them in the explosive environment of the company to both increase her contribution and bring more satisfaction.

We had her recall a number of times in her life in which she produced truly outstanding results. We insisted that some be personal. Among the many examples she offered were a particularly powerful consulting contract with a previous company that led to a whole new line of offerings, the effort of working with the architect and a builder to produce an award-winning home on a lot, where no one thought anything could be built, a consulting experience in Europe which revolutionized the way customers were treated, and helping her husband support his mother and siblings when his father suddenly died.

We then analyzed these examples, looking not at the content but at the consistent actions. We looked for the overall flow, as well as for each step and what it accomplished in getting to the outcome.

Phase 1. Getting Drawn In:  In all of her high performance examples, Samantha was drawn into the situation by seeing a group of people who needed help and were in over their heads. Good people being sucked down by forces beyond their control gets her energy flowing. Furthermore, in all her examples, the situation was new to her. This served to really focus her attention, as actions that worked in the past might not work.

When we applied just this much of her pattern to her job, she saw immediately that consulting was right for her. Clients often were being pulled down by forces they couldn't seem to control. Yet there was one major place where she was "off pattern" and thus reducing her own effectiveness and satisfaction. Virtually all of what she had been doing in the last year or two she had done before. There was nothing new. While her team's clients were in need of help, and, given the complexities and rapid development of information technology, didn't know what to do about it, every client was just another variation of the same thing she had already done. Newness was lacking, and she was feeling it deeply. She felt the lack of her own personal learning, and she felt the fact that she wasn't forced to be on her toes as much as she would have been in an unknown arena.

Note that in her case (others with different patterns would be different), the newness needed to be in the environment, not in the way she did things. She worked best and produced her best results when she was thrown into a new environment.

Phase 2. Getting It Rolling.  In all of her high performance examples, Samantha would first "stop the decline" by taking some obvious steps, and then engage in several steps to get under the surface—particularly hanging out and listening. After trying a lot of things to test her understandings, she would begin to get a vision of what was really possible. Once that vision formed, it was like a monkey on her back. She had to see it happen or it would haunt her. It was a "burden" in the religious sense of being called to do it.

When we applied this phase of her pattern to her current job, she could see other ways in which she was "off pattern." Since the environments weren't new, she hadn't spent much time really listening, hanging out, and probing for new levers to try. Rather she was running on automatic, letting other things fill her time. We explored whether there was enough newness in her job so that if she spent more time hanging out and listening, the high performance energy would come back. She felt that if she did so, she could do her job better (that part would be back on pattern), but it was a new environment that really motivated her.

Phase 3. Keeping It Rolling.  In all of her high performance examples, once she felt the vision and accepted the burden, she was phenomenal in motivating people and inspiring them to take risks to get there, including letting them take the credit.

When we applied this phase of her pattern to her current job, she recognized that she had done a lot of this in the last year. She had really inspired her team to pull out all the stops to meet the additional goals for revenue that the company had added. But the lack of newness made it just seem more of a grind-it-out experience, and the end result was a feeling of burnout, rather than elation.

Phase 4. Bringing to Completion.  In all of her high performance examples, she would receive special thanks that connoted acceptance, clean up discontents, pull the inventive pieces together as the new standard, and hear for years about the irreversibility of the transformation.

Again, as we compared this to her current job, Samantha didn't feel she was inventing much that was new, so the new standard was one of quantity, not quality. Furthermore, she was already deeply accepted, so much so that the company felt safe in giving her the expanded goals to achieve. In a way she felt taken for granted; no one appreciated what an effort it was.

After the application process, in which we completed a very detailed, step-by-step comparison of what she was actually doing on her job with what she would be doing if she were fully "on pattern," we looked at a number of actions to put herself into an environment that was new. We looked at shifting industry groups, becoming the head of a team of consultants in a new area. We looked at foreign assignments. We looked at making her the head of R&D where she and a new team would develop next generation offerings. In the final analysis, the area we could find where the 'newness" quotient would really cause her full high performance pattern to kick in was in building a number of the internal processes for managing the growth of the company. In effect, all of the human problems that consulting companies face that I mentioned in the earlier part of this article became the focus of her new job.

Taking Initiative

It took some time for Samantha to explain this new direction to her bosses, and to convince them it was right. She used her written pattern every step of the way to help them understand and to engage them in the process of utilizing her more fully. The pattern provided the vehicle for a really focused discussion of the way she could best be used. It then took more time to ease her out of the client- and team-leading responsibilities and turn those over to others. And it took more time to develop the new job description and responsibilities so that she could bring the full force of her capabilities to bear on solving company organizational problems. Yet now, only a few months later, everyone agrees it's the right focus to really maximize her contribution.

Meaning and Purpose

Since patterns are derived empirically, they contain a rich amalgam of actions, results and internal states that work together to enable a person to produce his or her best work. It's the process by which people make meaning out of their lives. Patterns describe the consistent process people use in achieving something outstanding and, not surprisingly, they find great meaning and purpose in that. If people can be "on pattern" in their daily lives, they find the continual process highly rewarding, and external motivators like salary and title matter a lot less. Patterns provide a practical tool for cutting through the huge waste and inefficiency in how we deploy, motivate and redeploy people in most organizations.  

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