As soon as I came across Michael Bungay Stanier’s work, I knew I wanted to feature him on Lateral Action. The subtitle of his book Do More Great Work is a perfect fit with our approach to work:
Stop the busywork and start the work that matters.
Michael is the founder and Principal of Box of Crayons, a company that works with organizations and teams around the world to help them do less Good Work and more Great Work.
Michael’s latest book Do More Great Work was an Amazon.com best-seller. It’s written to support and enable managers and leaders to do more Great Work. It has 15 practical exercises in it, as well as original contributions from people like Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Chris Guillebeau, Michael Port and Dave Ulrich.
As a coach myself, I appreciate the way Michael has written the book – he doesn’t just describe Great Work or give you an instruction manual. Instead he uses challenging questions, activities and visual ‘maps’ to take you through a process of reflection, decision making and action.
In other words, it’s a workbook, not just a book about work. If you do it with honesty and commitment, it’s the kind of book that can help you make big changes in your working life – and your life full stop.
1. Thanks for agreeing to tell our readers about your approach to work. Can you start by defining what you mean by ‘Great Work’?
Thanks, Mark – I’m excited to be talking to fellow Lateral Action readers. You can think of all you do as falling into three buckets – Bad Work, Good Work and Great Work. These aren’t labels of quality, but labels of meaning and impact. So Bad Work is the work that’s pointless, meaningless, a waste of time, energy and life. Good Work is solid, productive, important – but not anything you’re particularly thrilled, excited or stretched by doing. And Great Work is the work that’s meaningful, important, and makes a difference. It’s the work that stretches you and inspires you, the work that sits at that crossroads between excitement and anxiety, the sweaty-palm feeling of taking on something that really mattes and you know will call you to be your best.
2. What are the biggest obstacles to doing Great Work? How can we overcome them?
There’s a ton of little things that get in the way, but when you get to the heart of the issue it’s a question of what are you saying Yes to and what are you saying No to. That sounds simple – and it is – but it’s also difficult. It’s why I say you need three core things to do more Great Work. First, focus – clarity on what matters to you, and clarity on where are the opportunities for Great Work in your life. Second, courage – the willingness to start your Great Work even though it’s more comfortable and familiar to stick with your Good Work. And finally, Resilience – a willingness to keep going when things get uncomfortable.
3. One word that comes through loud and clear from your book is ‘Purpose’. Why do you think more and more people are looking to find purpose in their work these days? Given the state of the economy, isn’t the struggle for survival a big enough challenge?
The struggle for survival is absolutely a big challenge. And what you’re looking for is the right mix for you, whatever your situation, between Good Work and Great Work. It’s different year to year, person to person. But if you’ve got a job, you’ve got the basics of survival covered, the question then is – for the sake of what? Is this sufficient? And for a host of reasons – your happiness, the impact on those around you, the impact on the world – it’s worth continuing to seek a sense of meaning and purpose and impact in the world.
4. I love the innovative structure of your book – instead of just using written chapters, it’s based around visual ‘maps’ for readers to complete by answering questions. What made you choose this format?
If I had to give myself a label – something I resist most of the time – it would be ‘facilitator’. I see my job as creating and holding the space and the structure for people to figure stuff out for themselves. So I really wanted to create book that *really* sparked action. I know I’ve got too many on my shelves which were interesting, but didn’t make me do anything differently in the end.
5. You say “Right now it’s not that easy to do Great Work” – because of busywork, meetings, overconnectedness via technology, and the economic pressures bearing down on us. While I agree with you, I’d also like to play Devil’s Advocate and suggest that in some ways technology does make it easier to do Great Work – by connecting people, ideas and opportunities. Do you agree? If so, how can we make the most of this without the downside of overconnectedness?
You’re spot on – it’s all about are you using the technology, or is it using you? For instance, there’s a ton of research so that shows the price you pay for being constantly interrupted – meetings, email, whatever. It means you never get down to grips with really thinking and strategy and engagement with your Great Work. And at the same time, you and I are talking now because of the marvel of technology and connection. So for me, it’s about setting up structures that allow you to use technology without becoming its slave. For instance, I don’t have a Blackberry (or equivalent) even though I lust after an iPhone, because I know the prize (totally fun) is outweighed by the punishment (my lack of will and therefore the need to check email all the time).
6. Do you believe it’s easier to do Great Work if you’re self-employed than an employee in the proverbial cubicle? Or are the external circumstances not the most important thing?
These two basic contexts are different, and it can always feel a little like the grass is greener on the other side. I’ve been in both. As an entrepreneur, you do have more freedom and a wider range of choices but you’ve also got the drive to find work and make money and the sense of responsibility for everything. As an employee, you’ve got the safety-net of a regular income and the blessing of a more limited scope – and the fact you have less control over your time. So both have challenges, both come down to making some choices about what you’re saying Yes to and what you’re saying No to.
7. Any final tips for Lateral Action readers who want to do Great Work?
I’m a fan of projectization. Projects have a start, a finish and a way of measuring success. So you can chose more clearly whether it’s going to be Good Work or Great Work. So pick something to work on that will be your Great Work Project, and go for it.
Michael Bungay Stanier is the founder and Principal of Box of Crayons, and works with organizations and teams around the world to help them do less Good Work and more Great Work. Learn how to apply the principles to your own work with Michael’s latest book Do More Great Work. You can follow Michael on Twitter @boxofcrayons.