The other morning I had another great conversation with Michael Bungay Stanier, a friend of mine who has spent the last decade helping people shift from Good Work to Great Work. Michael’s company, Box of Crayons, helps individuals and organizations rethink what they are working on and why. Maybe, just maybe, you should be doing something else! Needless to say, Michael and I always have interesting conversations.
As Michael explains it, all work can be divided into three categories: Bad Work, Good Work and Great Work. Bad Work is the sort of soul-sucking, boring and often non-value-added work we’d all like to eliminate. Indeed, doing Kaizen (continuous improvement) can help you minimize Bad Work, but there’s always some that pops up, as much as we all hate it.
Good Work is the work we are doing to fulfill our existing commitments, internal or external. It’s work that “has” to be done to keep the business running and keep˜ people happy. Most of our lives are spent doing Good Work, because it seems necessary and also because it is expected of us.
Great Work is game-changing work, the sort of work that will take companies and individuals to the next level. It can be difficult, frustrating and exhilarating all at once. Great Work is often less defined and carries with it an increased risk of failure.
So what if you are on your game as it is? What if you are not doing that much Bad Work? Why isn’t Good Work good enough? There are people and organizations out there that do lots of Good Work and they seem to be doing fine.
The problem with Good Work, Michael points out, is that it eventually becomes commoditized. It may be good enough today, but renewal and growth is not optional. It is a necessity. If you don’t have any truly game-changing projects or activities in the works right now, chances are someone ELSE will change what the game is all about for you. So as Jack Welch put it, “Change before you have to”.
At LSI we have learned a fair amount about organizational and individual change capacity, and the depressing truth is that it is often very limited. Because Great Work is often less predictable in terms of the time, effort and resources required, most of us tend not to be that realistic about the game-changing work we take on. We are either overly conservative, which limits growth, or we are insanely optimistic, which means we get bogged down with initiatives left and right and progress may slow to a crawl because we are stretched to thin. I don’t know about you, but I tend to fall into the latter category.
Because our capacity is limited, doing more Great Work requires that we say no to other things. Bad Work is easy to say no to, but Good work is harder. Saying No is almost more important than learning to say “Yes”. My most successful friends are the ones who are good at saying “No” to Good Work.
Saying “No” requires courage and discipline. It can be uncomfortable and you may have to disappoint people. One of my friends had to stop coming to a fun dinner I organized regularly with CEOs and Founders because she was spending so much time traveling and needed time to finish her new book. She got really good at saying no, and her book became a bestseller.
Protecting the time and resources needed for Great Work over time may also need some extra structure. For us as individuals, setting aside blocks of time on our calendar can be very powerful and serve as a reminder not to allocate that time for something else. We can also use Peer Coaching to have a someone else ask us on a daily basis whether we have put in time on our Great Work Project X.
Organizations may need even more structure. Ram Charan wrote a book on Profitable Growth in which he recommended that companies set aside a “Growth Budget” to fund projects that were non-incremental and dedicated to creating growth for tomorrow. He also recommended requiring CEO-level permission to change his budget. Why? Because those resources are often raided toward the end of the quarter when people have to meet the numbers.
Because Great Work is a must over the long-term in order to avoid deteriorating, balancing Good Work and Great Work often becomes an exercise in balancing short-term versus long-term thinking. But what if you don’t really know where you are going? It’s all well and good if you feel you have a grand vision to move towards, but what if you don’t?
Organizationals as well as individuals sometimes lose perspective. They become so focused on short-term Good Work that they feel faced with too many possibilities and lack a way to choose when considering what Great Work they should be involved in. In such cases the beginning of Great Work is exploration projects. I call these “Look into..” or “R&D” projects. I am not committing myself to doing something — if I were, I might not even start down that road — I all I am asking myself to do is to explore a little and see what I learned. I may or may not decide to go further, but at least this way I am spending time beyond my Good Work boundary.
Let’s say that you have been able to find ways to overcome the obstacles we have talked about thus far. Why not just ONLY do Great Work? Um, not a good idea. We don’t live in a vacuum and most of us still have a portfolio of commitments and relationships that can’t be unwound overnight. And there will always be work that’s necessary because we have activities and systems that need to be on cruise control so that we will be around to do the most meaningful and game-changing work. Neglect that “infrastructure” and you won’t get very far. You may be changing the world, but if you don’t pay the electricity bill, you will be doing it in candle light.
CEOs need to pay special attention to Great Work, not just because organizations need to grow and evolve. The more ambitious and capable your people, the more of an emphasis they will place on individual growth and learning. That mostly comes from doing Great Work, and if you fail to provide enough room for that, employee engagement will suffer and you will have difficulty keeping your A-players.
You don’t have to wait for permission, though. No matter whether you are a CEO or a lowly intern, you do have some degree of discretion as to how much emphasis you will place on Great Work. If you think a project is Boring, maybe it doesn’t have to be! Sometimes the potential for Great Work is right in front of you, and all it takes is a choice.