#335 from Innovative
Leader Volume 7, Number 4
Performance Patterns Are Individual Phenomena
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
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.
"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
person has a high performance pattern.
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
person has only one high performance pattern.
person's high performance pattern is unique.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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