Just What Is (and Isn’t) Great Work?

Graphic designer Milton Glaser started this ball rolling for me. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you probably know his most famous creation: I LOVE NEW YORK.

His book Art is Work is mainly a collection of his design work, but he opens it with a curious and powerful insight. He says everything we do falls into three basic categories: Bad Work • Good Work • Great Work.

You Already Know What These Categories Mean

Over the years, I’ve asked thousands of people at hundreds of different organizations what these categories mean to them. Intuitively, they know—and their answers can be summed up like this:

Bad Work

Bad Work is a waste of time, energy, and life. Doing it once is one time too many. This is not something to be polite about. It’s not something to be resigned to. This is work that is pointless.

Sadly, organizations have a gift for generating Bad Work. It shows up as bureaucracy, interminable meetings, outdated processes that waste everyone’s time, and other ways of doing things that squelch you rather than help you grow.

Good Work

Good Work is the familiar, useful, productive work you do—and you likely do it well. You probably spend most of your time on Good Work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Good Work blossoms from your training, your education, and the path you’ve traveled so far. All in all, it’s a source of comfort, nourishment, and success.

There’s a range of Good Work: At one end it’s engaging and interesting work; at the other, it is more mundane but you recognize its necessity and are happy enough to spend some time doing it.

You always need Good Work in your life. At an organizational level, Good Work is vital. It is a company’s bread and butter—the efficient, focused, profitable work that delivers next quarter’s returns.

Great Work

Great Work is what we all want more of. This is the work that is meaningful to you, that has an impact and makes a difference. It inspires, stretches, and provokes. Great Work is the work that matters.

It is a source of both deep comfort and engagement—often you feel as if you’re in the “flow zone,” where time stands still and you’re working at your best, effortlessly. The comfort comes from its connection, its “sight line,” to what is most meaningful to you—not only your core values, and beliefs, but also your aspirations and hopes for the impact you want to have on the world.

But Great Work is also a place of uncertainty and discomfort. The discomfort arises because the work is often new and challenging, and so there’s an element of risk and possible failure. Because this is work that matters, work that you care about, you don’t want it to fail. But because it’s new and challenging, there’s a chance that it might.

For organizations, Great Work drives strategic difference, innovation, and longevity. Often it’s the kind of inventive work that pushes business forward, which leads to new products, more efficient systems, and increased profits.

So Far, So Good

Those are three fairly straightforward definitions. You’re probably nodding your head and thinking, “Yep, I get that.” But how do you get the balance right? What’s your perfect mix?

The truth is there is no perfect mix. Finding the right mix between your Good Work and Great Work (with no Bad Work) is the practice of a lifetime. And even if you do find a harmonious balance now, it will change. The best mix for this year won’t be right twelve months later.

A number of factors account for this:

1. Great Work decays. Over time, Great Work decays into Good Work. As Great Work becomes comfortable and familiar as you master it, it no longer provides the challenge, stretch, or rewards it once did. Your Great Work of today won’t be your Great Work five years from now.

The iPod syndrome kicks in. Remember how special iPods were when they first arrived on the scene? Now everyone has one, and they’re taken for granted.

2.  Good Work has its attractions. Even as we hunger for more Great Work, we’re always drawn back to the comfort of Good Work. It’s a perpetual tension—the challenge, risk, and reward of the Great against the familiarity, efficiency, and safety of the Good.

3.       Different years demand different responses. Some years are “stretch”
years when you go for it; others are years to conserve your strength, gathering ideas and laying the groundwork for your next initiative. This ebb and flow reminds me of an anniversary card I once saw that read, “Thanks for 20 great years . . . 7 average years . . . and 2 absolute stinkers.”

But here’s one thing I bet you’ve never said: “I have too much Great Work.” Because no one says, “My life’s just too interesting, too stimulating, too engaging, too fulfilling, too provocative. . . .” No one says, “I don’t want to do more Great Work.”

In fact whatever your mix might currently be, almost inevitably you’re hungry for more Great Work.

Michael Bungay Stanier is the founder and senior partner of Box of Crayons, a company that works with organizations, ranging from AstraZeneca to Xerox, to help them do more great work. With contributions by Seth Godin, a bestselling author, entrepreneur and agent of change.  To read more about their new book, visit Do More Great Work (Workman, 2010).