After decades of wholesale neglect, companies are finally facing the fact of pathetic white-collar productivity and realizing that they need to organize work in a fundamentally new way. The old ways of working are too slow, too convoluted, too hard to grab hold of -- and the value is too hard to capture. At the same time, white-collar workers themselves are catching on: They need to rethink the very nature of work. If they're going to have work in the future, they must be able to demonstrate clearly, precisely, and convincingly how they can add value. The answer -- the only answer -- is the project. And not just any project, no matter how droning, boring, and dull, but rather what my colleagues and I have come to call "Wow Projects": projects that add value, projects that matter, projects that make a difference, projects that leave a legacy -- and, yes, projects that make you a star. Distinguished project work is the future of work -- for the simple reason that more than 90% of white-collar jobs are in jeopardy today. They are in the process of being transformed beyond identification -- or completely eliminated.
Architects, accountants, graphic designers, lawyers, consultants, and all other workers in "official" professional-services firms understand life in the projects. As a professional, age 56, I can honestly say that I live the new formula: I = My Projects. Yet this idea is fairly new for the typical white-collar "staffers" in the human-resources departments, the IT departments, the finance departments, and all of the other departments in standard-issue manufacturing, production, and operations companies of the United States. All work of economic value is project work.
And because project work is becoming that important, a few rules are needed for thinking about projects the right way:
1. Project work is the vehicle by which the powerless gain power. Forget about "empowerment programs." Instead, volunteer for every lousy project that comes along: Organize the office Christmas party. (Turn that dreadful holiday party into an event that says, "Thanks for a terrific year!" to all employees.) Here's a dirty little secret from my professional career: The research that became "In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies" (with Robert H. Waterman, Harper & Row, 1982) was a McKinsey project that virtually no one in the firm cared two hoots about.
2. Project work is the future of the company waiting to be discovered. Somewhere, in the belly of every company, someone is working away in obscurity on the project that 10 years from now everyone will acknowledge as the company's proudest moment. Someone is creating Java, designing the iMac, reviving the VW Beetle, engineering the Mach3. Why isn't that someone you?
3. Never let a project go dreary on you. Your goal should be to work in perpetuity with Wow people, on Wow Projects, for Wowable clients. How do you know when your project measures up? Each week, ask yourself and your teammates, "Will we be bragging about this project five years from now? If the odds of success are low, what can we do -- right now! -- to turn up the heat?"
4. When it comes to life in the projects, draft people as if you were a GM and invest as if you were a VC. Work today is about two things: talent and projects. If you're in charge of a project, you ought to think like the general manager of an NBA franchise: You've got to fill 12 chairs with the hottest people you can draft. And when it comes to picking your projects, you need to think like a venture capitalist: You bet on cool people who have demonstrated their capacity to deliver cool projects. Tom Peters Dec 2007