Turning a Negative Statistic into a Positive Opportunity

If you look at a typical place of work, it is highly likely that value creation among the workforce is not a symmetrical phenomenon, but an unsymmetrical one. In a typical team (big or small) and in a typical organisation, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that some people make more of an overall contribution than others. The fact that this finding is so common in business shows, like in many other cases in the world, that there is likely to be an underlying engine driving this pattern of behaviour.

Thanks to the British physicist Derek Price, we know what this underlying engine is – it’s a common power law, eponymously entitled Price’s Law. Price’s Law is an intriguing phenomenon – it shows that human behaviour regularly follows a power law, whereby approximately 50% of some kind of human output comes from the square root of the total amount of that human output.

For example, in a typical company, 50% of the work (where work = creative influence) is likely to be done by the square root of the total number of people in the company. That means that if your company has a small team of 10 employees, about 3 of them are responsible for 50% of the most influential output. If your company has 10,000 employees, then about 100 of them are going to be about half as influential as the rest of the workforce combined. This power law has a lot to say about success too: if you have 100 pop artists, 10 of them will probably produce about half the music that is played on the radio; if you take 10 hit singles by an artist, 3 of them will be played on the radio about 50% of the time.

To understand that the square root of the number of a team’s size generates half the results means you can look at your own position within the organisation from outside the box and confer on yourself a significant advantage when it comes to your career and vocation. Suppose you’re in a sales team with 24 other people – the chances are that 5 salespeople (the square root of 25) are bringing in about 50% of the sales. If you’re one of the 5, you’re a standout performer, and those around you will have noticed. If you’re one of the 20, the chances are you’re in a languishing condition, either not fulfilling your potential, or perhaps in the wrong job altogether.

If price’s law teaches us anything about our career choices, it is that if you want to be one of the minority group that is creating substantial value over and above the mean, you need to be in a role where you can accomplish the very best you have to offer. And to do so, you need to find the vocation that best suits your talents, and become really good at what you do. That last bit of the sentence probably bears repeating: become really good at what you do, because you need to be really good at what you’re doing in order to find out whether that is the thing you should be doing; in order to identify in what kind of role you should be applying your contributions; and in order to tap in to what you can do even better

Not only will this best help you carve out a successful career, it will enhance your well-being and your job satisfaction, it will enable you to provide more value, and it will give you a better sense of job satisfaction, and a stronger personal identity in your work life. After all, who wants to be one of the languishing 20 when you can be one of the excelling 5? If you don’t become really good at something, you are in danger of hiding your light under a bushel, and hiding your potential not just from others, but from yourself too.

The fact that most companies have a value-creation distribution that follows Price’s Law strongly suggests that a lot of people are in a job that is not providing the enhancement and fulfilment that a working life should provide. Perhaps that’s because it’s easy to think of a job as a rigidly definable remit that you step in to undertake, rather than as a landscape of potential into which you can pour your own skills and experiences, plant the seeds of your unique contributions, and cultivate a vocation with the energy of your personality, your development, and your talents.

Often we place so much emphasis on the term ‘finding’ a job that somebody has advertised for us to fill, rather than on the notion of ‘creating’ the role that our talents and experiences expand to fill. Excelling in the workplace isn’t just about working for your employers, it is about yourself ‘in becoming’ – you are transforming the job’s blueprint into something that’s part of your identity, and giving enhanced meaning to your work life.

Faced with the unnerving reality that only a minority of people are making the biggest contributions in an organisation, we can endeavour to see it, not as a portent of a career in which inertia is expected to set, but as an opportunity to thrive. As I often say to people, don’t ever try to make a negative truth smaller – try to make yourself bigger, where you can tower over the problem with strength and confidence. Find the vocation where you can be in the thriving minority rather than the labouring majority – because there you’ll be able to earn more, learn more, provide more value, develop yourself more expansively, grow faster into your potential, and enjoy a higher quality of life, both in work and in your private life too.

James Knight - guest blogger