Please give this book away...

If you find this book useful – and I hope you will – I’d love you to spread the word. Help others get access to some of the wisdom and resources within.

But I have a request.
Please don’t send them your copy. Please send them to to download the latest version with the most updated links and information about products and insights. As a bonus, they’ll get Outside the Lines for Managers & Leaders – our newsletter with practical and provocative insights and tools to get more Great Work into your life.

And now for the legal bits and pieces...
© 2008 by Michael Bungay Stanier. All rights reserved. Published by Box of Crayons, a division of Maida CC Inc. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of Maida CC Inc.


Strategies for Great Work
Would you like more Great Work in your life?
If you ask most people in most organizations whether they’re doing as much Great Work as they’d like, the answer is No. And that includes the leaders of the organization. It’s not like there’s a small group of senior people plotting and planning to keep everyone else doing less Great Work than they’d like. So, if you are reading this and thinking that you’d like to be doing more Great Work and less Good Work – well, you’re not alone.

The challenge of doing Great Work
But, in the succinct words of football coach Lou Holtz, when it comes to Great Work “when all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.” The challenges are numerous – and here are just some I’ve come across. “I’m too busy dealing with the day to day to even figure out what Great Work might be for me.” “I could spend every waking hour just on my email. How can I get out from the minutiae?” “Great Work involves taking a risk – and if you make a mistake around here, you’re doomed.” “We say we want Great Work – but in fact, what we really value is the safety and reliability of Good Work.” 2

Five strategies to help
In these short articles – originally published in our Outside the Lines newsletter – I explore five different disciplines to help you get more Great Work into your life. In the first article, we’re looking at just what is the difference between Bad, Good and Great Work. In “What Rules Are You Making Up”, we uncover some the assumptions about “how stuff gets done around here” – and help think about what rules you might be able to break. In “No Going Back” we explore three different ways you can increase the level of commitment you have to the work that matters. In “How Do You Want To Be Remembered?” we look at how freeing it is to stop taking yourself – and your work – quite so seriously. And in the final article, we look at the art of the After Action Review – a tool that originates with the military which provides a powerful structure for any debrief. Each article has a “From Idea to Action: Something to Practice” section, to help you get these ideas “in your bones” and translate them so that they’re real and relevant for your life. My hope and wish is that you find some insights and tools in these articles to get more Great Work in your life. With warm wishes,
PS - At Box of Crayons, we help organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. If you’d like to learn more, there’s more information on Box of Crayons at the end of this document. And you’re always welcome to drop me a line. PPS – Sign up for Outside the Lines for Manager & Leaders at for practical and provocative insights and tools to get more Great Work into your life.


Are you doing Great Work? Or merely Good Work?
Let me introduce you to Milton Glaser
I’m almost certain you haven’t heard the name of Milton Glaser. But you probably know at least one of his works of art – the famous logo:

In his book, Art is Work, Glaser says that all the work we do – and by work he’s not just talking about your “9 to 5” job but EVERYTHING you do – falls into just one of three categories

1. bad work Have you ever caught yourself at work thinking: why on earth am I doing? This is an hour of my life I’ll never have back…” That’s Bad Work. 4

In organizations, it often comes under the label of bureaucracy. It’s the meetings that go on and on and on with no end in sight. It’s the paperwork that “they” need you to complete – for no apparent purpose. It’s the processes that date back to the 1970s and create ten steps when there needs to be only one… Richer Sounds is an audio and hi-fi store in the UK. It’s highly successful – in fact, it’s been in the Guinness Book of Work Records for years for its sales success. And it has something called the “Cut the Crap Committee.” And for Bad Work, the test is simple. If you suspect there would be work for a ‘Cut the Crap Committee’ of your own, then you’ve got Bad Work on your hands. (Remember, the test here is not how well you do the work. In fact, part of the curse of Bad Work is that most of us can deliver it at an excellent standard!)

2. good work Good Work is what most of us do most of the time. There is certainly no shame attached with doing Good Work. You’re doing work that uses your skills, it gets stuff done, it pays you a wage. Organizations love people doing Good Work because this is the work that is profitable, efficient and largely error-free. But Good Work has its limitations. At an organizational level, it’s work that will sooner or later become commoditized. And at both an organizational and personal level, it’s work that creates a comfortable rut. It’s work that doesn’t bring out the very best of the organization, and it doesn’t call forth the full potential of the people doing it. And the real danger is that in today’s lean, outsourced and tech-savvy firms, there’s so much Good Work that could be done that it eclipses the time and space to do Great Work.

3. great work Great Work is that work that challenges and inspires, which brings with it risk and reward, exhilaration and sometimes terror. At an organizational level, Great Work is something that every CEO proclaims as important – innovation, “Blue Ocean Strategy”, differentiation – and finds a challenge to implement, as there is an inherent tension between the promise of Great Work and the reliability of Good Work. 5

And on a personal level, Great Work is a place where impact and effect trump efficiency and process. It is a place of inspiration, where suddenly all your past makes sense (“A-ha! That’s why I did that, learned that, screwed that up, experienced that!”). Great Work is a place that honors your skills, your passion and your experience. Great Work is also a difficult place to be. The temptation to “downgrade” to the comfort of Good Work is constant. Your “inner critic” is rampant, whispering “Who are you to try this? Who do you think you are to be this ambitious? Don’t you know you’re doomed to failure?”

From Idea to Action: Something to Practice
Here’s a quick exercise. In this circle below, divide it into three segments that represent the proportion of each of these types of work in your life today.

How much Great Work are you doing? Good Work? Bad Work? Having asked thousands of people this question around the world, the typical answer is something like this: Bad Work: 10 – 40% Good Work: 50 – 80% Great Work: 0 – 25% And knowing this now, you’re faced with the realization that it’s your decisions – what you say Yes to, what you say No to – that has the great impact on what this “pie” looks like. So, thinking about your work right now… What would you have to say “no” to, to double the amount of Great Work in your life? What would you have to say “yes” to, to halve the amount of Bad Work in your life?


What rules are you making up?
The way things are done around here
Some years ago, I worked for a company that helped create new products. My job title was “inventor” and part of the process was running sessions that would generate hundreds and hundreds of ideas as solutions to a particular challenge. One of the best “games” I knew to come up with ideas was to list all the “rules” about what could and could not be done with that challenge. This in itself is a powerful process, because for the most part these rules are rarely made explicit. They’re just the unquestioned “way things are done”.

Who makes up these things?
Of course, many of the “this is the way we do things around here” are part of the company culture you found when you walked through the door on your first day at work. But the sad truth is, many of the rules you’re dutifully following – and sometimes chafing under – have been invented by you. We’re all terrific at making up or assuming the rules – and then carefully following them.


What rules do you operate by?
Here are some of the primary rules that I see people create: time “This is urgent.” “It always takes this long to do this task.” “This is the deadline, and it can’t be changed.” responsibility “Only I can complete this task.” “To be a good [insert role: mother, manager, leader, acrobat, etc] I must…” status “I can’t approach that person.” “I’m not allowed to ask for help” cost “Something like this must cost this amount.” “The price is fixed.” “It’s not negotiable.” “I can’t ask for what I want.” process “These are the steps you must go through to complete this task.” “This is what it means to be successful.” “This must be done in person.” “It’s considered rude if...”

Does this mean Anarchy?
So what do you do with all these rules? Ignore all of them? Of course not. I rather like the former Commander of the USS Benfold, Mike Abrashoff ’s, suggestion: If a rule doesn’t make sense, break it. If a rule does make sense, break it carefully.

From Idea to Action: Something to Practice
Think of a challenge you’re facing right now, something you’d like to get unstuck on. Review the list of rules above and work out what you’ve made up about your challenge. Pick three rules you’d like to break. Break one of them. 8

(Go on – you know you can).

No Going Back
Can you think of a time when you fully committed to something? Went full out? Took a leap of faith? Went, “What the heck, why not?” Put your money down? Went past the place of no going back? Did you feel your body react as you recalled that moment? Did you notice that you held your breath, that you shifted your body slightly as you reconnected? Such is the power of commitment. Here are three insights about taking the plunge, stepping up to the plate, and what that commitment looks like.

1. Commitment = feeling fear
If you’re struggling to commit to a bold task, then you’re almost certainly struggling with fear. Fear of starting, fear of failure, possibly even fear of success. It just comes with the territory. What’s needed is courage. Courage is possible once fear is acknowledged – and the decision is made to press on regardless. Courage comes from knowing that the fear is there, but that the goal you’re striving for is more important than that fear. Courage comes from breathing, and seeing fear shift into excitement.


What’s possible here, as Aeschylus writes, “Overcome fear and behold wonder.”

2. Commitment = moving
There’s an old joke: five frogs sitting on a log. One of them decides to jump off. How many are left? Five – because deciding doesn’t mean doing. You’ll know you are committed when you’re on the move. It might be getting out of the house, it might be making the phone calls, it might be rehearsing that tough conversation. But unless there’s movement, there’s no commitment. So ask yourself this question: if people were watching you, how would they know that you were committed?

3. Commitment = persisting
An insistence on perfection (and for nothing but perfection) can immediately deflate the balloon of commitment. Whatever you are committing to, it is almost certain that you will stumble and quite possibly fail. And then you can decide whether that failure is permanent or temporary. I had dinner with David Allen, author of the international bestseller Getting Things Done, and he told me that it took a year to write the first draft of the book – and then he had to abandon it. And he decided that this was a temporary failure, not a permanent one. And so he wrote the second draft. Where have you given up? Was it too soon?

The low down on “burning your boats”
You may have heard of “burning your boats” as a metaphor for commitment. Legend has it that Hernando Cortes, en route to dismantling the Aztec Empire, burned his boats on arrival so his rebellious crew had no option but to press on. The truth is, he didn’t burn his boats but ran them aground, and not as a way of getting his crew to commit to battling the Aztecs. John H. Coatsworth, director of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, puts it like this: “Cortes beached the ships to prevent anyone from heading


back to Cuba to report to the Spanish nobilities that he was engaged in an utterly unauthorized and illegal expedition. He was running for cover.”

From Idea to Action: Something to Practice
What’s the big thing, the Great Work that you want to commit to? Out of ten, how would you score your current commitment? And now you’ve done that, realise that this is a trick question. There is no “half way” on commitment. You either are, or are not. (It’s either a ten or it’s nothing). So, imagine you’re now fully committed – ten out of ten. What wouldn’t you do to make this a success? (This is a more powerful question than jumping to “what would you do?”) And now you’ve written that short list, what’s left? Pick one of those actions. Make it one that excites you and also scares you. Write it down. Write down when you’ll do it. And now write down who you’ll ask to support you, by creating accountability


And here’s what you’ll tell them: What you’ll do. By when. And how you’ll come back to let them know.

How do you want to be remembered?
A single blue and white plate
Last year I visited Istanbul for the first time. It’s a brilliant, beautiful city, full of the swirl of history you’d expect at a place where Europe and Asia meet. I explored the Tokapi Palace in Istanbul, the 15th century home of the Ottoman sultans. Amongst the stunning architecture and tiles, jewelry and armor there was one part of the complex dedicated to showing the vast collection of Ming Dynasty porcelain. I couldn’t help reflect on how hundreds of years ago an anonymous Chinese potter had created this beautiful plate with its beautiful patterns of blue on white... Which had traveled across land and seas to end up in Istanbul... Where it humbly hosted the various dishes of the Sultan... And where it provided inspiration for the Iznik potters, makers of


the famous tiles that now adorn palaces and mosques... And where it continues to provide inspiration for artists, tourists and Turks who visit the Palace.

Later in the day, outside the Palace, I came across a small stub of stone by a tram stop. On it was a sign that had this poignant declaration: “This stone pillar is all that remains of a Byzantine triumphal arch from which road distances to all corners of the empire were once measured.” The arch, like the empire, had vanished. The porcelain bowl had survived.

Will I matter?
What I took from this is not so much that the fragile survives and the seemingly immortal has vanished. Rather, it strikes me how random and how unlikely it is that there will be any lasting legacy of who we are and what we do. In The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun – a short movie on the internet you can see at – I ask, “in a hundred years, will it matter?” I might as well ask, “In a hundred years, will I matter?” The answer? Probably not.

Feeling a little down?
It would certainly be easy to sigh and shrug and ask, “Why bother?” For me though, that answer – “in a hundred years, I probably won’t matter” – is liberating. It points to the paradox of our existence: both overwhelmingly meaningful and overwhelmingly insignificant. It is freeing. It means we can do the work that matters and that inspires us without the burden of it being perfect, or timeless or “right”. We are granted willingness not to take


it too seriously AND to strive for Great Work. And so, feeling liberated and inspired while I look out today at the morning bustle of Istanbul life, here is....

My manifesto of insignificance
Knowing that my death is certain and my time of death is uncertain… Knowing that the work I do matters and also will not last… I’ll strive to do Great Work. I won’t take things too seriously. I’ll strive to create things of beauty. I’ll enjoy today. I’ll love the people in my life.

From Idea to Action: Something to Practice
What would make your Manifesto of Insignificance?


What does that free you up to commit to? What are the principles you want to live your life by so that you could do more Great Work?

It’s not what you do… it’s what you do after you’ve done it
Moving on…
Most of us don’t bother with a post-event analysis. But even when we do, they can be painfully horrible affairs: a combination of passive-aggressive politeness with no one willing to mention the “dead moose” (or “dead elephant” or “dead kangaroo”, depending on your country of origin) that is in the room. (For those unfamiliar with the phrase, we’re talking about the thing that’s big and rotten and getting in the way of everything).

Two principles & five questions
An After Action Review (AAR) is focused primarily on learning and building community. It is founded on two related principles: This is not to judge success or failure (and hence apportion blame) but rather the focus is on what can be learned for moving forward. There’s a belief (what Norman L. Kerth calls the Prime Directive) that 15

regardless of what’s discovered, the participants understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand. With that in place, there are five simple and profound questions to ask. 1. what did you intend? This can be a simple restatement of your objectives. What were you trying to achieve?

2. what happened? This is useful for just getting a sense of what really happened. You can rest assured that your perspective of events is only one of the versions. The objective here is to collect both “the facts” (such as costs, number of people involved, figures, etc) and differing opinions on what worked and didn’t work, what circumstances influenced what happened, and other factors. When commenting on others’ roles, capture specific behavioural events (what they did, what they said) rather than your conclusion about what they did (X did a poor job because...).

3. what can we learn about it? There will be different levels of learning here, from the very specific (“don’t wear Brand X socks - they give you blisters”) to the more abstract (“this project wasn’t close enough to my life purpose for me to be motivated”). Don’t forget to ask here, “What did we do well that we need to discuss or else it will be forgotten?” It’s very easy to jump to “the mistakes.” It’s most powerful to start with what’s been working. Capture also “what still puzzles us?” You won’t be able to figure everything out. Be explicit about what it is that still is a mystery.

4. what should we do differently next time? This is powerful because it plants seeds for the “next time” conversation. Without these seeds, we default back to a collective memory of “this is how we do things around here” which most often does not capitalize on the collected wisdom.


5. what should we do now? There may well be actions to take right now: things to do, people to connect with. As with all actions, set up accountability: what will be done, by whom and by when.

From Idea to Action: Something to Practice
Look back on a recently completed project or event. It might be a family holiday. It might be a project at work. It might be a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend. Thinking about what happened, write down your answers to these five questions: 1. What did you intend? 2. What actually happened? 3. What did you learn? 4. What will you do differently in the future?


5. What should you do now? If you’re feeling bolder, invite the others involved in the process and have the conversation with them as well.

Box of Crayons
Box of Crayons is a company that works with organizations and teams around the world to help them do less Good Work and more Great Work. Box of Crayons draws on a range of technologies to help ensure the best possible support for their clients. These technologies include

Coaching for Great Work™ training
This training program provides coaching skills for managers and leaders that are both practical and strategic. The program tackles and overcomes the typical points of resistance that stops coaching flourishing within organizations, points of resistance which include “this is important but not urgent” and “I’ve got no time for this!”
Michael did an amazing job partnering with us for our Senior Leader Seminar ‘Winning by doing the stuff that matters most’. Our people found the short, sharp sessions extremely valuable - rating them 4.5 out of 5. He hit just the right balance of stimulus, depth, practicality and entertainment! Already, many of the ideas are in the language


across Centrica and we are starting to see some real results. Laura Walker, Head of Learning, British Gas and Centrica

Clean & Clear teams
Many teams in organizations are neither clear on what they’re doing nor “clean” in how they work together. Box of Crayons works to help a team get more focused on the work that truly matters and to find the best possible way to work together to get there. Typical sessions draw on principles from coaching, strategic facilitation, innovation and action planning.
“Michael has real expertise in helping a team become clean and clear. He operates by these principles and it shows - he took our team to new territory, which took courage, skill and wisdom and he did it elegantly and joyfully. He is refreshingly straightforward, working in ways that are simple, clear and fun and which deliver surprising, meaningful results.” Sally Bonnywell Director, Executive Development and Talent Management,, GlaxoSmithKline

“Our team building session yesterday was the best training/coaching session I have participated in during my 6+ years at Campbell’s. Michael simplified the complex and makes the daunting task of doing Great Work approachable. I walked away from the session with knowing that I can change some ingrained work habits and the way I approach new tasks. Thank you for driving your vision for building the best imaginable team – this session was truly a gift to our team.” Participant, Campbell’s

Executive coaching
Box of Crayons uses a global network of coaches to deliver the very highest level of executive coaching.

Innovation is one of the crucial competencies of Great Work. Box of Crayons works to increase and enhance the natural level of creativity within teams and individuals – and helps focus on how to implement and sustain these new skills in the face of the organizational status quo.


“My team recently participated in an Innovation and Risk-Taking session facilitated by Michael. The goal was to increase our personal knowledge of tools and techniques that we could use both personally and with our business clients. As a secondary goal, we also applied the techniques to an existing team challenge so we could see practical application of the learning. The day was a huge success. My team felt invigorated with the new skills learned and found it extremely beneficial to practice the new techniques on a ‘real life’ example. Michael’s style contributed to the overall success. He gave us some very practical tools and insights, but was also flexible and accommodating to the needs of the group. I have great confidence that my team will continue to apply the learning.” Melinda Gasson Director, Management & Organizational Development, Kraft Canada Inc.

Our clients


Box of Crayons’ clients range from AstraZeneca to Xerox and are based in North America, Europe and Australia. We have particular expertise with blue chip organizations in the professional service, pharmaceutical and consumer goods market sectors. A more complete client list is available on request.

Michael Bungay Stanier, BA LLB M.Phil, CPCC
Michael Bungay Stanier is the founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons (www., Michael was the 2006 Canadian Coach of the Year. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, and holds a Masters of Philosophy from Oxford, and law and arts degrees with highest honors from the Australian National University. He created Get Unstuck & Get Going on the stuff that matters, a multi-award-winning coaching program and tool that’s being used in organizations around the world. Leading 21

management thinker Peter Block says it has “a quiet political message in it that coaching is available to all of us and is not a profession but a way of being with each other.” He also created The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun and The 5 ¾ Questions You’ve Been Avoiding short internet movies that have been seen by half a million people in at least 175 countries around the world. Michael is a popular speaker at business and coaching conferences. He regularly speaks in North America, Europe and Asia and in the last twelve months has spoken at Mumbai, Montreal, Melbourne and Minneapolis (just to focus on the Ms). You can see his most popular topics at Box of Crayons.
“Michael is an engaging and dynamic speaker. Not only is he fun to listen to, but his tools are easy to work with and extremely useful. Our group is a tough audience but everyone was blown away. In fact, several of our team members actually used the tools in brainstorm sessions the very next day. I would not hesitate to recommend Michael to anyone looking to add fresh, innovative thinking into their company.” Rebecca Singer Pfizer Canada

He is a member of the Innovation Igniter Faculty, a program established to help organizations introduce and sustain innovation as a core competency. Prior to founding Box of Crayons, Michael held senior positions in the corporate, consultancy and agency worlds in the UK, the United States and Canada. Michael supports a number of non profit organizations, including • Founding Board member of the Coach Initiative, an organization committed to bringing the power of coaching to non-profit organizations • The Constituent Advisory Committee for About Face International, a non-profit organization working with people with facial differences. • A facilitator for The World Council, an organization that helps enroll youth in a vision for global harmony.


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