Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More
Morten Hansen

Ended: April 24, 2018

Starting in 2002, Jim Collins and I spent nine years working on our book Great by Choice as a sequel to Jim’s Good to Great.1 Both books offer empirically validated frameworks that account for great performance in companies.
In the end, we discovered that seven “work smart” practices seemed to explain a substantial portion of performance. (It always seems to be seven, doesn’t it?) When you work smart, you select a tiny set of priorities and make huge efforts in those chosen areas (what I call the work scope practice). You focus on creating value, not just reaching preset goals (targeting). You eschew mindless repetition in favor of better skills practice (quality learning). You seek roles that match your passion with a strong sense of purpose (inner motivation). You shrewdly deploy influence tactics to gain the support of others (advocacy). You cut back on wasteful team meetings, and make sure that the ones you do attend spark vigorous debate (rigorous teamwork). You carefully pick which cross-unit projects to get involved in, and say no to less productive ones (disciplined collaboration). This is a pretty comprehensive list. The first four relate to mastering your own work, while the remaining three concern mastering working with others.
Top performers did less and more: less volume of activities, more concentrated effort. This insight overturns much conventional thinking about focusing that urges you to choose a few tasks to prioritize. Choice is only half of the equation—you also need to obsess. This finding led us to reformulate the “work scope” practice and call it “do less, then obsess.”
Our top performers took a different approach: they strove to find roles that contributed value to the organization and society, and then matched passion with that sense of purpose. The matching of passion and purpose, and not passion alone, produced the best results.
Top performers collaborate less. They carefully choose which projects and tasks to join and which to flee, and they channel their efforts and resources to excel in the few chosen ones. They discipline their collaboration.
The very best people didn’t just work smart in a conventional sense, but pursued more nuanced practices, like doing less and obsessing, and matching purpose with passion. Comparing these seven practices, I realized that they all embodied the idea of selectivity. Whenever they could, top performers carefully selected which priorities, tasks, collaborations, team meetings, committees, analyses, customers, new ideas, steps in a process, and interactions to undertake, and which to neglect or reject. Yet this more nuanced way of working smart wasn’t just about being selective. The very best redesigned their work so that they would create the most value (a term we will define in chapter three) and then they applied intense, targeted efforts in their selected work activities.
Based on these findings, I arrived at a more precise definition of working smart: To work smart means to maximize the value of your work by selecting a few activities and applying intense targeted effort.
Picking a few priorities is only half the equation. The other half is the harsh requirement that you must obsess over your chosen area of focus to excel. The term “focus” consists of two activities: choosing a few priorities, and then dedicating your efforts toward excelling at them. Many people prioritize a few items at work, but they don’t obsess—they simply do less. That’s a mistake.
The complexity trap wreaks havoc inside companies. In the name of progress, we pile on goals, priorities, tasks, metrics, checkpoints, team members, and so on. But adding these items increases complexity, which we can define in terms of the number of items and the number of connections between them.
Occam’s razor at work doesn’t say that you should simplify all the way to one. It says you should do everything possible to cull activities—the fewest metrics, the fewest goals, the fewest steps, the fewest pieces of sushi—while retaining everything necessary to do great work. As the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed, “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
If using Occam’s razor is working smarter, you might wonder why most people don’t do it. The problem is that we love to keep our options open. Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, and his collaborator Jiwoong Shin demonstrated through a series of psychological experiments that people cling to options, even when those options no longer provide any value whatsoever.30 “We have an irrational compulsion to keep doors open,”
The second tactic for focusing and obsessing, then, is to seal yourself off from those distractions. I did that while writing this book. Knowing how hard writing is for me, and how tempted I am to procrastinate, I bought a laptop and got rid of the Internet browser, email, and the instant messaging app—everything except for Microsoft Word. I carried this barren computer to Starbucks for two-hour intervals. Day after day, I sat there with my dark-roast tall coffee (black, no sugar). I felt a terrible urge to check my email—but I couldn’t. So I kept writing. Before long, I had completed a manuscript.
A third tactic for doing less and obsessing is to manage your boss’s expectations around your scope of work. A full 24 percent of people in our study blamed their inability to focus on their boss’s lack of direction or a broader organizational complexity in their company. In general, it’s far easier to embrace “do less, then obsess” if your boss is practicing it, too. Many top performers in our study reported having bosses who gave them clear direction, set specific goals, and had few priorities.
This chapter highlights three ways you can implement the “do less, then obsess” principle: 1. Wield the razor: Shave away unnecessary tasks, priorities, committees, steps, metrics, and procedures. Channel all your effort into excelling in the remaining activities. Ask: How many tasks can I remove, given what I must do to excel? Remember: As few as you can, as many as you must. 2. Tie yourself to the mast: Set clear rules ahead of time to fend off temptation and distraction. Create a rule as trivial as not allowing yourself to check email for an hour. 3. Say “no” to your boss: Explain to your boss that adding more to your to-do list will hurt your performance. The path to greatness isn’t pleasing your boss all the time. It’s saying “no” so that you can apply intense effort to excel in a few chosen areas.
As the “Squeezing the Orange” chart reveals, working longer hours enhances performance, but only to a point. If you work between 30 and 50 hours per week, adding more hours on the job lifts your performance. But once you’re working between 50 and 65 hours per week, the benefit of adding additional hours drops off. And if you’re working 65 hours or more, overall performance declines as you pile on the hours.
Other research has documented the same inverted U. Studying factory workers at a weaponry plant in Britain in 1914, Stanford economist John Pencavel found that performance topped out at 64 to 67 hours per week, beyond which it began to fall.7 Where the curve starts to flatten and where it plateaus may vary from job to job and industry to industry.
Delving back into our data, we found that fruitful redesigns all shared one thing in common: value. A good redesign delivers more value for the same amount of work done. That begs the question: what is value, exactly? As our study suggested, we should evaluate the value of our work by measuring how much others benefit from it. That’s an outside-in view, because it directs attention to the benefits our work brings to others. The typical inside-out view, by contrast, measures work according to whether we have completed our tasks and goals, regardless of whether they produce any benefits.
The advice “start with goals” when planning an effort, is wrong. We need to start with value, then proceed to goals. Ask yourself: what benefits do your various work activities produce, really?
Then we have people who rack up volumes of activities and run around bragging about how busy they are, as if busyness equals value. People mistake the number of meetings, task forces, committees, customer calls, customer visits, business trips, and miles flown for accomplishments, even if in reality all these activities may not add value. Being busy is not an accomplishment.
Dr. Bennick’s intervention holds a profound insight: When people redesign, the key is not the degree of change they’re undertaking. Instead, it’s the magnitude of the value they can create.
Want shorter and more effective meetings? You could create better agendas or discipline people so that they don’t ramble on. Or here’s another idea: try removing all the chairs in the room, compelling people to stand up. Research has discovered that stand-up meetings are 34 percent shorter than sit-down meetings, and the decisions they produce are equally effective.
You can create tremendous value in your job if you spot and help colleagues, customers, and suppliers alleviate their most significant grievances. The more acute the discomfort and the more people suffering from it, the louder they yell—and the greater the prospect for a powerful remedy to create value.
The way companies get ahead in such a volatile time is by innovating products and services. The way individuals get ahead is by innovating work. Don’t just see yourself as an employee—see yourself as an innovator of work. Hunt and cure pain points, ask stupid questions, and zoom in on how you can redesign and create value for others.
Our statistical analysis of 5,000 managers and employees demonstrates that those who redesigned their work performed significantly better than those who didn’t.
According to our statistical analysis, if you work up to 50 hours, performance improves as you add more hours. Beyond 50 hours, the benefit of adding more hours starts to wane. Beyond 65 hours, adding more hours causes performance to decline. Outworking others is not a clever strategy.
Good redesigns create more value—the benefits work activities bring to others. That outside-in view is very different from traditional, inside-out ways of setting goals, tasks, and metrics. People can achieve their goals and be very productive, yet produce zero value.
The value equation emphasizes three distinct components. To produce great value at work is to create output that benefits others tremendously and that is done efficiently and with high quality.
Explore five ways to redesign work to create value: • Less fluff: eliminate existing activities of little value • More right stuff: increase existing activities of high value • More “Gee, whiz”: Create new activities of high value • Five star rating: improve quality of existing stuff • Faster, cheaper: do existing activities more efficiently.
Companies have long deployed improvement techniques such as “six sigma,” and a whole field called “organizational learning” has arisen to help businesses improve quality in manufacturing, logistics, customer ordering, and service.8 Yet this approach has not expanded much outside such organizational processes, and it has not filtered down to individual employees. If you glance around the workplace, you’ll find that few people strive to enhance their skills the way Dan enhanced his golf game. As a result, people conduct meetings or give presentations or make sales pitches just as they’ve always done. They become “good enough,” but not great at work.
Instead, we must implement a different version—what I call the learning loop. Employees and managers who improve their skills at work follow several tactics that you don’t find in traditional deliberate practice as deployed in the performing arts and sports. They discard isolated practice in favor of learning as they work, using actual work activities such as meetings or presentations as learning opportunities. They also spend just a few minutes each day learning, eschewing the three-to-four-hour practice sessions common among musicians and athletes. They also rely on informal, rapid feedback from peers, direct reports, and bosses, and not just coaches. And they take steps to measure the “softer” skills that permeate the workplace.
Whereas before she had asked, “Do you have any ideas?” she now posed that question differently: “What ideas do you have to improve patient food service?” Her coaches Steve and Marlys had suggested that such a seemingly trivial change would invite people to suggest ideas. And sure enough, one staff member responded: “How about we start knocking on the door and introduce ourselves to patients, and saying we’re from meal services?”
Brittany learned to spend less valuable meeting time on announcements (implemented in a learning loop), to talk less about the data and more about how to solve problems (another learning loop), to ask employees how she as a manager might support them (another learning loop), to follow up on previously discussed ideas (another learning loop), and so on.
Brittany broke her overall skill area of “getting the team to generate ideas” into the micro-behaviors of “asking a question that gets people to propose an idea,” “asking a follow-up question that generates more detail,” and “securing follow-up commitment from team members,” among others. I broke my “improving keynote speaking” skill into a few areas (opening, closing, stage movement, punch line on each slide), and used the “power of one” to work on each. For “stage movement,” I worked on “start by planting your feet like cement on the floor (vs. moving restlessly like a caged tiger),” “move a few steps then stop again,” “make eye contact with one person, then move to another,” and “extend your arms outward to claim space.” These actions might seem trivial, but I could go onstage and remember to do just one of them at a time. They were concrete and actionable.
Purpose and passion are not the same. Passion is “do what you love,” while purpose is “do what contributes.” Purpose asks, “What can I give the world?” Passion asks, “What can the world give me?”10
What’s the real magic of P-squared? It provides people with more energy that they channel into their work. Not more hours as in the “work harder” paradigm, but more energy per hour of work.
Passion is key, but doing only what you love is bad advice—it can lead to failure and ruin. The best course is to strive to match passion with a strong sense of purpose—to aim for P-squared. People who do so unleash a tremendous amount of energy that they apply to every hour on their job. They don’t work the most hours. They work smart by aiming for the most effort per hour of work.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. —Maya Angelou1
When we analyzed our case studies, I was struck by how the best performers went beyond rational arguments and adopted various tactics to advocate for their projects. I discovered that the best advocates—what I call forceful champions—effectively pursued their goals at work by mastering two skills to gain the support of other people. They inspired others by evoking emotions, and they circumvented resistance by deploying “smart grit.”
The second skill that the forceful champions in our study used, smart grit, entails persevering in the face of difficulty and deploying tailored tactics to overcome opposition to their effort.
Yet “showing, not telling” is by no means a common tactic. Only 18 percent of people in our 5,000-person dataset scored high on the statement, “frequently taps into people’s emotions to get them excited about their work.” That’s too bad. As our study also revealed, arousing emotional responses gets results, including for junior people. In fact, about 19 percent of people in either a senior job position (division manager) or a junior one (technical specialist) scored very high on their ability to stir emotions.
Grit at work is not about putting your head down and bulldozing through successive walls of resistance. Smart grit involves not only persevering but also taking into account the perspective of people you’re trying to influence and devising tactics that will win them over.
Psychologists call her approach “cognitive empathy,” which we can define as the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state.28 In his book Power, Stanford Business School professor Jeffrey Pfeffer states that “putting yourself in the other’s place is one of the best ways to advance your own agenda.”29 He notes, however, that our obsession with our own concerns and objectives prevents us from doing so. We assume that opponents just don’t “get it,” and thus we pummel them with more facts and arguments in an effort to make them get it. That’s working hard, not smart.
The best performers don’t just argue rationally for their ideas. They compel others to support them by deploying a two-punch maneuver. First, they inspire by evoking emotions in individuals whose support they need. Second, they apply smart grit, tailoring and adjusting their tactics in the face of opposition. Forceful champions—those who inspire others and apply smart grit—are more likely to persevere and achieve their goals at work.
Forceful champions use a variety of behaviors to arouse emotions and inspire coworkers to support their efforts: • They make people angry about today and excited for tomorrow. • They show and don’t just tell, using striking photos and demos to evoke intense emotions. • They make people feel purpose, connecting daily tedious work to a grander purpose.
Forceful champions display smart grit to break down opposition and garner support for their projects: • They consider the perspective of opponents (“standing in their shoes”), tailoring their tactics to address opponents’ specific concerns and agendas. • They confront opponents, when needed. • They make concessions they can live with to appease opponents. • They co-opt opponents, so that they, too, feel a sense of ownership. • They exert pressure by mobilizing people to advocate on their behalf.
The Bay of Pigs disaster stands as a monument to a horrible team decision-making process. As the leader of the group, President Kennedy failed to foster a rigorous debate. The individual participants failed, too, in their responsibilities to voice dissent and articulate the downsides of the proposed plan. The best and the brightest failed.
Much of a team’s work occurs in group meetings. It follows, then, that a team’s performance and your own individual performance hinge on the quality of team meetings—how well people debate issues, and how fully they commit to implementing decisions.
Two team meeting principles stood out among the rest. The first was something most of us don’t feel good about: fighting. When teams have a good fight in their meetings, team members debate the issues, consider alternatives, challenge one another, listen to minority views, scrutinize assumptions, and enable every participant to speak up without fear of retribution.
“We actually encourage ‘constructive conflict’!” he said. “When there is a group of people who feel passionately about a set of ideas, I want to ensure those ideas are allowed to flourish. They should not be silenced by the majority consensus. And if they come armed with facts and are prepared to argue their point of view, they will be encouraged to keep working away. . . . Of course, this can lead to some lively meetings.”
Based on our interviews, I tried to discern the unspoken rules—social scientists call them “implicit norms”—for having a good fight at Reckitt Benckiser. I came up with the following list: • Show up to every meeting 100 percent prepared. • Craft an opinion and deliver it with conviction (and data). • Stay open to others’ ideas, not just your own. • Let the best argument win, even if it isn’t yours (and often it isn’t). • Feel free to stand up and shout, but never make the argument personal. • Always listen—really listen—to minority views. • Never pursue consensus for its own sake.
In teams that unite, team members commit to the decision taken (even if they disagree), and all work hard to implement the decision without second-guessing or undermining it.
We find similar teamwork cultures at other high-performance companies. At Amazon, the company expects managers and employees to “challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting” and “once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”17 Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen described how his company’s investment team debates when a partner proposes a deal. “It’s the responsibility of everybody else in the room to stress test the thinking,” Andreessen says. “Whenever [partner Ben Horowitz] brings in a deal, I just beat the s—- out of him. And I might think it’s the best idea I’ve ever heard, and I’ll just, like, trash the crap out of it. And I’ll get everybody else to pile on.” If the partner prevails, they will stop arguing. “We’ll say ‘OK, we’re all in, we’re all behind you.’ ”18
Likewise, University of Michigan professor Scott Page has demonstrated that the key to a fruitful debate is “cognitive diversity,” the presence of dissimilar perspectives on an issue.20 He argues that diversity based on demographics and expertise helps insofar as it makes people see the world from different vantages and with different information.
By setting expectations and inviting people to speak, van den Brink cultivated an atmosphere of psychological safety, as Harvard professor Amy Edmondson calls it, a “climate in which people feel free to express work-relevant thoughts and feelings.”26 In our study, about a fifth of participants (19 percent) were adept at creating such climates, scoring very high on the statement “he/she is extremely good at making people feel it is safe to speak up in meetings.” As the data showed, those who scored high performed better (the correlation was a high 0.63).
The best performers advocate properly: They craft an opinion, argue their case with vigor, outline its weaknesses and assumptions, listen to other points of view, debate the issues, and change their mind if warranted. (See the sidebar for tips for debating and listening drawn from my conversations with hundreds of managers and employees.)
People who crave to learn the truth about an issue don’t ask leading questions. They ask open-ended questions—inquiries that do not convey an opinion or bias. Ham would have been better off putting her query this way: “What’s your view on the foam damage?” Or she could have asked, “Does someone have a different point of view?” Or: “Can someone argue the opposite point of view?”
After you fight, you must unite. That means people on a team have to commit to a decision—to agree to it and exert effort to implement it. So why wouldn’t people commit? Research on the topic of fair processes in groups has shown that employees have trouble committing to a decision when they perceive the process as unfair.
The New “Work Smarter” Perspective To maximize performance, maximize team debate and team unity. To have a “good fight” in a team, prioritize diversity over individual talent. When you fight and unite well, you don’t need follow-up meetings because your team discussed it well the first time. You meet smart.
To have a productive fight in meetings, pursue the following strategies, either as leader or participant: • Maximize diversity, not talent • Make it safe to speak up • Prod the quiet to speak • Show up as an advocate, not a salesperson • Ask nonleading questions.
To improve team unity, try the following: • Ensure everyone has a voice (being heard creates buy-in) • Commit, especially when you utterly disagree • Confront the prima donna • Sharpen the team goal • Stop playing office politics and get behind decisions.
It’s hard enough to work well within teams, as we saw in the last chapter. But with entrenched silos, many individuals struggle as well to collaborate across boundaries. By collaborating I mean connecting with people in other groups, obtaining and providing information, and participating in joint projects. Those groups include other teams, divisions, sales offices, departments, geographic subsidiaries, and business units.
Then we discovered one factor that did influence whether a team won or lost. Experience. Ding! Teams with minuscule experience in either the topic of the bid or the client’s industry benefited from outside help. That was obvious—after the fact, of course! By contrast, teams with deep expertise fared worse when receiving input from colleagues. The more help they received, the lower their chances of winning the sales bid. These teams spent precious time searching for experts and, later, trying to incorporate their advice. They wound up dealing with more conflict and produced more chaotic, less effective sales proposals. These teams overcollaborated, because no compelling reason existed for them to seek outside help.
My research has uncovered an approach that keeps you within the two extremes of collaboration. Disciplined collaboration, as I call it, is a set of practices that allows you first to assess when to collaborate (and when not to) and to implement the effort so that people are both willing and able to commit to it and deliver results.
In my previous book Collaboration, I detailed how leaders can design an organization—its structure, incentives, and culture—to promote disciplined collaboration. In this chapter, I outline how an individual—junior or senior—can implement five disciplined collaboration rules to improve his or her own performance.
How precisely do you build a “business case”—a compelling reason—for a proposed collaboration? The following equation from my research and consulting provides a useful guide:12 Collaboration Premium = Benefit of initiative – opportunity costs – collaboration costs
As I wrote in my book Collaboration, collaboration costs refer to the hassles of working across units, including “time spent haggling with the other parties over objectives, efforts to solve conflicts, and all the poor results that these complications create: delays, budget overruns, poor quality, and lost sales.”
SECOND RULE OF DISCIPLINED COLLABORATION Craft a unifying goal that excites people so much that they subordinate their own selfish agendas.
Based on my two decades of studying and advising on unifying goals, I have identified four qualities that can guide you to make them effective. Try to make them common, concrete, measurable, and finite. The most famous—and successful—unifying goal of all time might well be President Kennedy’s dream, articulated in a 1961 speech, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Now, that’s a common goal: all 400,000 people working on the project—those working on the rockets, the landing vehicle, the space suits, and so on—had to collaborate to accomplish it. The goal was simple and concrete: A man on the moon. It was measurable: The mission was over when the men returned safely to earth. It was finite: within a decade.
Whenever you can, tinker with the rewards setup so that you can motivate people to channel their effort in pursuit of the unifying goal.
THE THIRD RULE OF DISCIPLINED COLLABORATION Reward people for collaboration results, not activities.
FOURTH RULE OF DISCIPLINED COLLABORATION Devote full resources (time, skills, money) to a collaboration. If you can’t, scale it back or scrap it.
FIFTH RULE OF DISCIPLINED COLLABORATION If you lack confidence in your partners, tailor trust boosters to solve specific trust problems, quickly.
Overcollaboration is as bad as undercollaboration. Busting silos is not the answer. A different tack—disciplined collaboration—helps you collaborate effectively and perform.
Disciplined collaboration consists of the following five rules: 1. Establish the business case—a compelling reason—for any proposed collaboration initiative, small or large. If it’s questionable, say no. 2. Craft a unifying goal that excites people, so that they prioritize this project. 3. Reward people for collaboration results, not activities. 4. Commit full resources—time, skills, and money—to the collaboration. If you can’t obtain those resources, narrow its scope or kill it. 5. Tailor trust boosters—quickly—to specific trust problems in the partnership.
The other way to work better with others is to revamp all those lame meetings. Whether you’re participating in or running the meeting, take small steps to fight and unite better (chapter seven). Remember the lessons we drew from Reckitt Benckiser, a manufacturer of dishwasher soap that is one of the world’s top-performing companies. When teams have a good fight in their meetings, people debate, consider alternatives, challenge one another, and listen to minority views. In teams that unite, people commit to the decision taken (even if they disagree) and work hard to implement it. You can take those small steps in your next meeting: make a better effort to listen (put away that smartphone); articulate your own dissenting views; invite a colleague to argue an opposite position; prompt quiet colleagues to speak up; and pose a good question instead of telling others what you think. Then forge unity: tell yourself to support a decision even if you disagree, and ask a colleague to do the same. As you get better at this, you will find that meetings become more productive. And the good news is that, once you’re on that path, you need fewer meetings!