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Special Projects:

A Career Development Tool for All

People come to work for more than just a paycheck.

Employees thrive at work when they can do something great, be part of something bigger, and make a difference that matters. When you choose a place to work, you look for more than just the salary and benefits. What is the organization’s purpose, and am I inspired by it? What is the culture like? Are there opportunities for me to grow and make a difference? The phrase “opportunity at work” often leads us to think about promotions, pay raises, and career development. But true opportunity means more than just climbing the corporate ladder. The chance to grow, learn, make an impact, and create great work are areas of opportunity that employees crave. Opportunity means to tap into an individual’s unique talent, to help them shine.

According to the 2018 Global Culture Study, only 59% of employees worldwide feel positive about the opportunity for growth and development in their organization. While not all organizations can provide career advancement or salary increases, most can provide a simple yet powerful way to build a sense of opportunity: by using special projects.

Special projects highlight an individual’s specific talents and invite them to participate in something new. They help employees learn new skills, grow in their responsibilities, and connect with other employees they don’t normally interact with. In fact, 3 out of 4 employees feel special projects help them grow in ways their day to day jobs cannot. 71% report they connected with people they normally would not have when they worked on a special project.

Inviting employees to participate in a special project also shows you value them and chose them for their unique skills and contributions. The individual is able to make an impact and contribute to the organization in a meaningful way. Special projects engender feelings of success. Research shows when an employee is invited to tackle a problem or take on an initiative with a group of their peers, and that project is outside of their day-to-day duties, they perceive themselves as a successful contributor to the organization.

“I asked my supervisor if there were any additional responsibilities, or tasks I could take on to learn more or to explore deeper. Her response was, ‘If you want to further your career, you should do it at a different company.’ So, I quit.” – FOCUS GROUP PARTICIPANT


Special projects improve company culture

When employees participate in special projects, there is a 26% increased sense of opportunity. Employees are 50% more likely to believe they learn new and valuable things in their current role.

But the impact of special projects touches more than just a sense of opportunity. The power of special projects transcends all aspects of workplace culture. By participating in special projects, employees are:

There is also a 20% increase in overall job satisfaction and sense of success, and a 29% in feelings of appreciation.

When it comes to the 6 most important aspects of workplace culture (the 6 Talent Magnets: Purpose, Opportunity, Success, Wellbeing, Appreciation, Leadership), special projects improve all 6 magnets. By participating in special projects, employees feel a sense of purpose in their work. They see success when they contribute to the project. They feel appreciated for those contributions, feel a sense of belonging in the organization, and have better relationships with leaders. The simple act of involving an employee in a special project can drastically impact the entire employee experience.

Special projects connect people 

Why are special projects so powerful? Working on special projects gives employees a view of something greater than themselves, their immediate jobs, and their team. They are able to connect with the broader organization, its purpose, and see how their work impacts others. 69% of employees who work on special projects feel their organization inspires people towards a shared goal, compared to 39% who have not worked on a special project. Special projects connect employees to a purpose, accomplishment, and each other.

During special projects, employees meet new leaders and peers, and gain insight into how they impact others and how they can improve their own work. When we looked at 10,000 examples of award-winning work, we found almost 9 out of 10 of those instances involved someone seeing how his or her work impacted others1 .

Special projects are also something every employee can participate in. They are not just for top performers or new employees. They connect and provide a sense of opportunity for every employee, regardless of age, level, or tenure.

“It’s really just about empowering people by giving them specific projects they wouldn’t get with other companies or stretch them a bit and give them new ways to lead, when they might not be afforded that opportunity elsewhere.” – DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS, AEROSPACE


Special projects connect people 

Our research shows only 49% of employees have worked on a special project at their current organization, and only 30% felt empowered to. The following best practices show how to use special projects effectively and build a sense of opportunity: 

1. Identify the right projects. Special projects are more than planning the annual Christmas party or transitioning all the paper invoices to electronic versions. Special projects should never be busy work, or work no one else wants to do. They should be meaningful ways employees can contribute to the organization outside of their current job. Perhaps you need to come up with new company values. You want to overhaul your organization’s client tracking and billing system. You are opening a new office in Beijing. Or you are changing the name of one of your products. Whatever the project is, make sure it’s something the employee can meaningfully contribute to, and something that will make a lasting impact on the organization.

2. Invite the right employees for the right projects. As you are considering which project an employee might thrive in, think about which employees have the best skills to contribute, but also think about what the employee would value most. Some employees may want exposure to the CEO. Others might want the opportunity to travel, work with clients, or present in public. Another employee may be more excited about innovating and working on a secret product, or planning a groundbreaking, high profile event. Whatever it is, be sure to appropriately match the person with the project they would thrive in the most.

3. Make sure the project is cross-functional and gives employees visibility with high level leaders. The biggest benefit of special projects is that they give employees access to leaders and employees they don’t normally work with, providing an opportunity to network and learn new things. Ensure that the project you involve employees in is not just within their normal teams, and that it exposes them to at least one high level leader.

4. Don’t play favorites. 50% of employees believe there is favoritism in the organization when it comes to providing opportunity. Special projects are great ways to build opportunity because all employees can participate in one. Give all employees a meaningful special project to be involved in. Ensure that it’s not the same two people that are chosen for multiple projects. Special projects create a sense of belonging, and if employees do not feel empowered or invited to participate, they become disengaged.

5. Be sure to account for existing workload. Before giving employees additional responsibilities, make sure they have enough time and resources to tackle their existing work. Otherwise special projects may be mistaken for giving employees extra work due to a lack of resources. Employees will be neither excited to work on another project nor inspired to contribute their time or energy.


Many big initiatives started out as smaller, special projects:

BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China): a term first coined by retired Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill to describe the shift of power from developed economies to developing economies, BRIC became a “special project” that companies across the world assigned to individuals and teams to understand. BRIC exploded from just being a special project to becoming its own division for most multinational companies.

Direct marketing: after Digital Equipment Corp’s marketing manager Gary Thuerk (Father of Spam) sent the first commercial mass email, companies created special projects to better understand and use email to market to customers. These special projects then became their own industry, with entire companies now dedicated to social and mobile direct marketing.


The importance of recognition

If special projects are a way to show an employee they are valued for their unique skills and talents, then employees should be recognized for the contributions they made to a project. Recognition is a crucial part of special projects; unfortunately, only 48% of employees received any recognition for contributions they made to a special project.

Recognize employees for their willingness to participate in the project; for the specific contributions and impact they made; for the victories they had; for the effort they put in. Public recognition is critical, as it shows an employee’s accomplishments to their peers and the rest of the organization. Recognize the team triumphs but also the person’s individual impact. Involve senior leaders so they can see the great work your people have done. And tie the recognition back to the greater company purpose and goals, so employees can see the difference they have made in the organization. 

Recognition is a great culture builder. When employees are recognized there is a:

24-point increase in employees’ sense of opportunity

• 22-point increase in their feelings of success

• 21-point increase in their sense of appreciation

• 16-point increase in wellbeing

• 23-point increase in perception of leadership

• 20-point increase in feeling a sense of purpose

However, when employees are not recognized for their great work and contributions, there is a 71% decrease in feeling appreciated. Be sure employees are recognized for their work and accomplishments on special projects. 


“We try to help people reinvent themselves in their roles by giving them projects and enticing rewards for those projects as well. So they at least feel if they’re not making promotional advancement, at least they’re making some sort of career progression through growth and learning.”

– Managing Director of Sales, Transportation and Logistics company

If you want employees to thrive at work, provide them with opportunities to be great. Special projects connect your people, empower and inspire great work, and cause them to stay:

Give your people a chance to do something exciting, empower them to make a difference, and connect them with the right people. And then stand back and watch them thrive.

To see more best practices to build opportunity in your organization, read our 2018 Global Culture Report

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