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Of all the coaching and productivity tools that exist out there, one that has had a lasting impact on me is Stephen Covey’s Importance vs Urgency Matrix, first explained in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I like the model because it’s simple, easy to remember and extremely powerful in managing your projects and time. One of the challenges with the model is that, while it does an excellent job of helping you classify which activities are important, it’s not particularly strong at helping you figure out how to do those activities.
Which is why I was delighted to come across Michael Bungay Stanier’s book Do More Great Work; an approachable, easy to digest guidebook for not only identifying what great work means to you, but also for helping you commit to and follow through on that great work.
The Big Idea
Do More Great Work
"When I say 'Great Work,' I'm not talking about a standard of delivery. I'm talking about a standard of impact and meaning."
This may be a first – having the book title as our The Big Idea. Rather than taking this as a sign of laziness on my part, I choose to explain it as this: Our goal with “The Big Ideas” is to highlight one particularly actionable point from each business book. Bungay Stanier’s entire book is actionable. Not only that, it has a singular, succinct point: we are happier – more fulfilled – when we are engaged in work that stretches us and makes a positive impact in the world. And yet.
And yet, we spend so little of our time engaged in these types of activities. Instead, we spend most our time in the weeds, doing “bad work” or, most insidious of all, “good work”. A few quick definitions:
Bad Work: This is work that is pointless. It creates no value and it sucks our souls. “Bureaucracy, interminable meetings, outdated processes that waste everyone’s time, and other ways of doing things that squelch you rather than help you grow.” (pg 4)
Good Work: This is the stuff you’re paid to do; paid to deliver. It’s thing things that need to get done, and you’re fairly happy to do. It’s efficiency focused and (most likely) takes up the vast majority of your day.
The cost of doing bad work is, hopefully, fairly obvious. The challenge is in understanding the threat that good work poses. It’s “productive”, it’s typically something you’re good at, and you’re never going to get into trouble for doing good work well. It’s safe. And this is a trap. Doing good work never moves anything forward. It doesn’t energize us, it doesn’t challenge us, it doesn’t allow us to make a dent in the world. It’s important, and will always have a place in our professional lives, but – and here’s the ultimate point – doing good work with excellence is not the same as doing great work.
For the sake of our sense of self, and for the good of our careers and our companies, we need to engage in more great work. So how do we do that?
"Because we're in a hurry, we often just grab the first half-decent idea that comes along, regardless of whether it's the best idea we could have. I call this 'first-idea-itis'."
One of the reasons we don’t do as much great work as we could is due to the speed at which we’re (apparently) trying to get through our lives. We take pride in check marks, and moving through To-Do lists.
Great work is hardly ever an item on a To-Do list. Great work takes deliberate focus, energy and thought. It requires carving time out of our To-Do schedule and slowing down long enough to actually think beyond the immediate problem or solution. Do More Great Work comes complete with 15 “maps”, or visual exercises you can work through to find, select and create action around your own great work projects. The exercises guide you through the thought process of what’s important to you, why, and how acting on it could/would have a positive impact on your life and career. Here’s a quick one to get you started in defining your own great work project:
Great work demands (and allows) that you be at your best – your greatest. Think back to a few specific instances where you were at your best. Think about how you felt, how you spoke, what the setting was, and the details of the project. Then jot down a series of comparisons that answer the prompt: “I am this… …not that.” (Map 3 from page 44 of Do More Great Work.)
I am intelligently witty… …not condescending or dry.
I am well prepared with bullet points… …not scripted or trying to memorize.
I am succinct and focused… …not long winded.
Jot down as many as you can. Read them over and get a sense of what types of work you are doing when you are at your personal best.
When You Can't Say No
"The answer is not to focus on saying no but rather on saying yes more slowly."
There’s a good chance that you already know of a great work project you could be exploring. It’s the idea that you had a while ago, but never put into action. It was never the right time. The truth is, it will never be the right time. Your calendar’s never going to just open up and provide you with months of unfettered time so you can explore those exciting, Great-work projects. But you can carve out time to work on these things, if you protect your calendar intelligently.
One of the best ways to protect your calendar to allow for more Great work projects is to cut back on the number of things you say “Yes” to. If you’re good at what you do (and if you’re reading this, you likely are), people will come to you for help, guidance, support or insight. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with helping people out. In fact, it’s extremely important. What you can do, however, is – as Bungay Stanier puts it – “say Yes more slowly”.
Rather than immediately agreeing to help, do something, or be on a committee, try responding with some of the following questions (taken from page 90-91 of Do More Great Work):
– May I ask why you’re asking me?
– Have you considered asking X? He’s got some experience with this.
What’s the Brief?
– When you say “Urgent”, what does that mean? When’s the latest it has to be done by?
– If I could only do part of this, what part would you like me to do?
What’s the big picture?
– Have you checked this out with my boss?
– What should I not do so I can do this?
Not only do you delay saying “Yes” immediately with these questions, you actually help the other person gain clarity on their own objectives and are valuable to the process without becoming a part of the process… which, of course, frees you up a little to pursue your own Great Work projects.
Really and truly, Great Work is the only work worth pursuing. You’ll never escape Good Work, but the good news is that you don’t need to pursue it, it will always find you. Hopefully you can eliminate (or at least minimize) Bad Work, but it is certain that you will very rarely be involved in truly Great Work unless you actively pursue it. And, with a resource like Do More Great Work at hand, it’s now that much easier. Go. Make a dent.