A former Goldman Sachs and McKinsey manager explains how reversing the famous “80/20 rule” can unlock creativity

Four people sit together with their laptops and books discussing something exciting

The Pareto principle says that 80% of results tend to come from 20% of employees. But what about the other 80% of employees? Jim Citrin wants to help them unlock their potential. 

At a recent "Talks at GS" event, Citrin, senior director of executive search firm Spencer Stuart, told Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon that by helping more workers perform purposeful tasks, organizations can generate greater value.

"And so, it’s not just doing more of what you’re being asked to do," Citrin said. "Do what you’re asked to do. Meet your objectives. Go beyond that." 

Creative leadership is necessary as companies transition to hybrid work environments. Employees prefer to be split across scattered offices and personal laptops, meaning managers need to find new ways to build community and optimize employee performance.

Workers who seek to add value beyond their predetermined position benefit their coworkers and the company as a whole, Citrin told Solomon. For example, an intern volunteering to organize a training program will engage other interns while showcasing their own strong work ethic. 

"Success is defined not only by your personal success," Citrin said, "but by the people who you’re working with." 

It’s not about the assigned tasks, but the ones you create

Opposite the 80/20 rule, Citrin’s "20/80 rule" emphasizes the need to transform the mundane tasks that produce only a sliver of the results — the 20% of output that come from 80% of the workforce — into personal assignments that lead to greater impact. 

Citrin and consultant and colleague Darleen DeRosa surveyed 600 virtual teams and 1,000 CHROs for their career advice book, "Leading at a Distance: Practical Lessons for Virtual Successes." Citrin and DeRosa found that what differentiates an average employee from an excellent one isn’t necessarily picking which few objectives are best, but identifying new milestones. 

According to Citrin, everyone from interns to CEOs can use the framework to think creatively beyond their assigned roles. The best workers use their unique perspective to understand where the organization can grow in "unexpected ways," he said.  

Excellent employees don’t just pick which assigned objectives are most important, but create their own objectives, Citrin told Solomon. The 20/80 principle guides workers to avoid aiming for average, and instead search for opportunities to expand the scope of their job.  

"Most people in the world define their success or their jobs as you have objectives, and your job is to meet your objectives," Citrin said. "That’s what creates average performance."

The 20/80 rule works in many work environments

Companies have recognized the benefits of creative thinking before — with Google enacting a "discretionary time" where engineers were expected to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects. 

While institutionalized creative time may feel like an oxymoron, the implementation of "discretionary time" at Google has produced some staple company products, including Gmail. 

The 20/80 rule can inspire workers to rethink their schedule independently as well. 

Employees can take mistakes from assigned tasks and transform them into new problems to solve. Sometimes the best business decisions will result from experimenting with tasks on your to-do list.

"The guy who created Post-Its, that was out of a mistake," Citrin shared. While the adhesive used on Post-It notes may not have fulfilled its original purpose, the creator’s willingness to experiment invented a new industry. 

"The strong performers, this is the 20 percent, on average achieve their objectives by 20 percent," Citrin said. "But the top 1 percent, they actually redefine their job." 

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Rachel DuRose July 16, 2021 at 09:12PM

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