Michael Bungay Stanier does Great—Important—Work. His bio says that he’s the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations and the people in them do less Good Work and more Great Work. It should also say that he’s one of those wonderful people with a gift for telling it how it is, in just the right, positive way. His most-recent book is Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork and Start the Work that Matters. You can pillage the free chapters, courses, interviews and other resources at Do More Great Work. Check out all the short movies he’s created at Box Of Crayons Movies, too.
You’ve identified three “buckets” of work. Please talk a little more about the bad, the good, and the great.
Sure—and we can be quick with this.
Bad Work: Let us not mince words here—it’s no time to be polite. This is the work that is mind-numbing, soul-sucking, life-draining. It’s bureaucracy, paperwork and endless meetings. It’s the work that, if it was up to you, you’d never do again. And, sadly, we all find ourselves doing Bad Work some of the time.
Good Work: What we do most of our days, most of the time. It’s most neatly summed up as “your job description.” So nothing wrong with it: it’s work that you probably enjoy, that keeps you busy, and that uses your skills and training and experience. But it’s also work that is never-ending (do you know anyone with a “zero inbox”?) and keeps us stuck in a comfortable rut. When we’re doing Good Work, we’re no longer exploring the edges of who we are and what impact we might have in the world.
Great Work: This is the work you do that has meaning and has impact. The work that you’re proud of and that you wish you had more of. The challenge of course, is that it’s the work that both excites you and scares you a little. It challenges you and pushes you.
So you can see, this isn’t a measure of the quality of the work you do. In fact, it’s one of the bitter ironies of life that most of us deliver our Bad Work at a high level of excellence—a singular definition of Extreme Pointless.
And the bottom line in all of this? We’ve all got not quite enough Great Work and too much of the other stuff. I’m trying to change that.
(You can see a brief movie that sums this up with animation.)
You’ve helped thousands around the world go from bad or good work, to great work. How did you get to great yourself? What were you doing before Box of Crayons, and how did you identify your own great work?
Have you ever noticed that when someone explains how they got to where they were, it sounds like a planned journey? We all know the reality is something different, more like a lucky stumble here and a fortunate right turn there. In fact, one of my favorite sayings is that “inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.”
So welcome to a quick tour of my accidental past:
I grew up in Australia and studied Literature and Law. Two important moments: being told by my Latin teacher when I was 14 that if I wanted to go to Oxford University—like my Dad, who was a local Oxford boy—I needed to win a Rhodes Scholarship. And being sued for defamation by one of my law lecturers.
I won a Rhodes Scholarship (on the second try. On the first try, I didn’t even get an interview) and did a Masters degree in literature at Oxford University. Key moments were:
—falling in love with the Canadian who’s now my wife;
—living in a house with 16 people doing PhDs and realizing that that clearly wasn’t the path for me (it became clear that doing a PhD required expertise and grit, neither things I specialize in);
—and, by studying literature rather than law at Oxford, being plucked off the path that would have led to me becoming a largely useless and certainly unhappy lawyer.
My first job after university was with an innovation and creativity company. They were “Fast Company” before Fast Company existed. They encouraged my long hair, earrings and home-made clothing and taught me something of innovation, branding and what it means to have a job. Most importantly, they managed to do all of this without crushing my spirit in a “regular” job and by encouraging me to assume the rules are there to be broken.
My next job was with a change management consultancy and I learned (again) that you can never tell what sticks. I spent 30 minutes jotting down the global vision for GlaxoSmithKline, and 11 years later it’s still the guiding philosophy of the company. I spent months on a large-scale organizational change program and made exactly no impact.
With this company I moved to Boston, where we failed to set up a new office, but learned where to find the best pizza in the universe (Pizzeria Regina, Little Italy. The Pomodore and Spinaci pizza is the bomb).
My wife and I decided Boston wasn’t for us, went to the local pub, drank some beer, each wrote the name of three cities on a beer coaster, and on the count of three turned the two coasters upward. Toronto made both lists, so we made plans to move and bought tickets to fly out—on September 11, 2001.
The consulting job I had lined up disappeared into the ashes of the Twin Towers, so after six months failing (again) in a change management role, I got my papers to work in Canada, got fired the same week, and started the company that would become Box of Crayons.
I spent the first four years saying, “yes, of course I can do that” to any request made of me. But then a friend, Kate, sent me a photocopied page of Milton Glaser’s book Art is Work. It was the seed for Bad Work, Good Work and Great Work—the foundation for the work I now do.
And since then, I’ve been getting clearer on how to best help people in organizations do Less Good Work and More Great Work—which we do at Box of Crayons through training programs, facilitation and consulting, through a couple of books and through the short movies you talk about below.
I’ve enjoyed watching the shorts you’ve created. My favorites are The 5.75 Questions You’ve Been Avoiding and The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun. In addition to being creative and fun to watch, they provide a feast of food for thought. Where do you come up with your ideas and how did you figure out the approach that works for you (style, tone, and so on)?
The first movie I created was The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun, and it’s been the movie that’s been most popular—it’s been seen by about a gajillion people since we put it on-line four or five years ago. It came about because I was giving a workshop to some coaches about the importance of creating Intellectual Property as a way of building a business—and realized that I’d not actually done that myself. So I spend an hour or so crafting the Principles, and got a friend to design them as a small poster. They were largely ignored by everyone, but at least I didn’t look a total fool in the workshop.
Later, Scott Stratten (who just released a great book, Un-Marketing) created one of the first viral movies on Time. I saw the movie and immediately saw the possibilities with the Eight Principles. Through our web designer we found a brilliant animator—Robert Kwabe in Montreal—and he turned my thoughts on design into something compelling.
And that’s how it goes. I tend to script something and sketch out some broad design idea, and Robert takes it over and turns it into something better than I could ever have imagined.
What are the common ties that bind people to bad or good work? And, is there something that you have to work at avoiding as you do your own great work?
Lack of time to reflect
Lack of focus
Lack of courage
Lack of resilience.
I know these are no small things. And, they’re all within our control.
For me, one of the biggest blocks is focus, or rather a lack of it. I suffer from something someone once called SOS—Shiny Object Syndrome. I’ve got various tricks to get me through this, including defining the “one plus two” at the start of each day. Before I do anything, I write down the one Most Valuable Action I’m definitely going to get done today, and I know how it relates to a Great Work Project. I also write down two other tasks I hope to get done—but there’s no guilt or recrimination if I don’t get to them. They’re gravy.
On the other end, what are the springboards that propel people out of bad or good work, and into great work? And, is there something specific that inspires you?
Sometimes it’s a spark of something that will kick you into doing more Great Work. If that happens, that’s fantastic. To have Great Work thrust upon you is a luxury.
But I don’t think you need to—or should—wait for inspiration. Anyone who knows Steven’s work knows exactly what I mean by this. It’s the difference between being an amateur and a professional, right?
One thing that helps is having a bigger “this is what I’m trying to do in the world” to keep pulling you forward when you want to give up. The way I frame it is, “infecting a billion people with the possibility virus.” So it gives me both a goal to aim for and a measure to weigh up my choices.
For instance, I now do very little individual coaching. It’s a tough thing to give up, because having someone break though on some challenge because of your help is a very rewarding experience. But when weighed against the other ways I can support people, then it’s one of the least scalable. So I say No to it, knowing that the “prize” I get for focusing on other Great Work is bigger than the “punishment” of giving up the coaching experience.
You’ve said that even great work is in danger of become good or bad after a few years. How do you keep your own work great? How do you change things up?
I think there are three strategies that are crucial.
The first is giving yourself time to reflect on yourself and your life, so you can get clear on what’s currently Bad, Good and Great for you—and whether that’s the best possible mix for you. It helps to have someone to support you on this. A friend. A coach. A mastermind group. Personally, I use all three of those to help me stay the course.
The second is getting practiced at saying No. Until you start mastering saying No to Good Work, then it will be next to impossible to say Yes to Great Work.
As someone who runs his own small business, I am constantly faced with the dilemma of saying No to client work that’s offered, so that I have time to write and create and build and do the other things that help my business flourish. It’s tough, because I’m turning away cash—but again, it’s a case of prizes vs punishment.
And finally, embrace the project-ization of things. I’ve found that when you create a Great Work Project for yourself, you define a start point, an end point and a sense of what success is. And when one project is done, it’s natural to look for what’s next.