‘Just One Thing’

Michael Bungay Stanier and I have been having fun with his new project, the Great Work MBA. In the process, I asked him about what allows any of us to do great work.

You’ve now been thinking about “great work” for what, 5 years now? Time flies.  Bungay-Stainer_Michael-760x427What’s the one thing you now know is the accelerator or fuel for great work?

As soon as you asked that, about a dozen answers popped into my head…




A sense of humour!

And the irony – what with me being limited to “just one thing” – is that, in the end, the one thing that truly fuels Great Work is….

Focus. Focus. Focus.

Here’s how that plays out. First, you need to know what it is you care about. Great Work is about doing more of the stuff that has an impact and that has meaning. And that’s rooted in what matters to you. So unless you have a sense of what drives you, what you value (and what your values are), and what you want to make in the world, then Great Work will be elusive. Second, it’s about finding the opportunities for Great Work that is around you. Winston Churchill said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” The same might be said for opportunities to do Great Work. It is usually around you but you need to be paying attention. And then, of course, it’s being courageous enough to make a choice, fully. Charles Bukowski said, “If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise don’t even start.” Now, Bukowski was somewhat crazy so you shouldn’t take this as the gospel truth. But it’s worth considering the question, “what would fully committed to this look like?”

It seems to me the problem isn’t that people aren’t committed to things, it is that they are committed to too many things.

Yes, so part of real commitment must involve shutting somethings down. These days, we’re all so busy that saying Yes to something has no real power unless you’re willing to give something else a strong No.

And, Nilofer, I know you know this. You’ve gone through various iterations and clarifications of your own Great Work, and that’s involved turning down tempting opportunities – high profile and lucrative Board appointments, for instance – because you’ve made your choice to focus yourself – to go deeper into one area means not skimming over many things. Steve Jobs said it – and I’m paraphrasing here: It’s easy to say No to the stuff you want to say No to. But saying No to the stuff that you want to say Yes to? That’s called strategy.

A man after my own heart, this Michael is. Yes, that’s why it IS called strategy. It strikes me that what you are talking about here seems simple, but in practice is hard. Every time any of us say “no” to one thing or “yes” to another, we are, in practice, saying yes or no to another human, not just an idea. Any tips on how to both focus, and manage the potential fall out of the human relationships?

I say cut ’em down and leave the bodies where they fall!

OK, maybe that works if you’re a certain Mr Steve “grumpy but brilliant” Jobs, but probably not for most of us.

I think the first thing to untangle is this idea that saying “No” creates fall out. Of course, sometimes it does. But often, it will be seen as a strategic, professional decision rather than a personal affront. If you’re going into a conversation with the assumption that a No = a rip in the relationship, then you’re already in trouble. And at this stage, there’s probably some personal work to be done about understanding the difference between being respected and being liked; and why do you need everyone to like you; and what price are you willing to pay for that belief that everyone likes you.

That said, the way you say No makes a real difference.

I’m a fan of the idea – which I think I stole from Bill Jensen, author of The Simplicity Survival Handbook and most recently Disrupt! – of learning how to say Yes … More Slowly.

So before you leap to Yes, have some good questions in your pocket. And Nilofer, you’ll like these because they are in effect strategic questions and might be a way of closing down the “air sandwich” of strategy.

What’s most important here?
Who else have you asked?
Why are you asking me?
If I could only do part of this, what part should I do?
When you say “urgent”, what does that mean?
What standard do you expect this delivered to?
How does this fit against my other priorities?
What’s driving this?

… and so on. These answers can help you triage what makes sense.

These are great questions and of course I’m a big believer in questions as a way to handle any kind of “conflict” — and of course what you’re getting back to is that you have to pick. Focus is about picking. Picking is about knowing what matters to you and why.

Yes, you’ve only a limited ability to manage key relationships. So you need to know who your key relationships are – do you? Most of us tend to lump nearly everyone at the same level of importance – and that’s a mistake.

Lets talk about you for a second. You have so earned my respect over the years – We met when we worked together on the End Malaria book. You gathered about 50 of us thinker/writer types to contribute to one book – a complete act of generosity on your part to corral all of us kittens — and use that to raise money for a good cause. You seem incredibly clear about what success looks like. Tell us about what fuels you and about the “Great Work MBA” you’re doing now.

Well thanks for those kind words, Nilofer. I remember once reading a description of how change *really* got managed, and it was “we pick a destination. We run like hell. We stop, look around, marvel at how we got here, then repeat.” And sometimes it feels a little like that with my career. Or “career”. I’ve never had much of a clear destination, it’s just evolved as I’ve done stuff, reflected on it, learned what I’m good at and what I like, and then did the next thing.


Your question made me think: what does fuel me? And, I think it’s two opposing forces that keep me moving. The first is a mission statement that I’ve had for at least 10 years: To infect a billion people with the possibility virus.

What’s powerful about that for me is that while it’s insanely big, it’s about getting people to make braver, bolder, better choices (for them and for the world). It is also about encouraging people to (in the words of my favorite writer Peter Block) “take responsibility for their own freedom”. And, it means I have to create stuff and then get out of the way and see if it catches on. I can’t be the hub. (And I have certain controlling instincts, so it’s useful to keep reminding myself to shift.)

So that provides a constant touchstone for what impact I’m trying to have. And then I keep asking myself: what’s the next coolest thing/project I could be working on. I’ve been infected with S.O.S. (Shiny Object Syndrome), so the next coolest project let’s me play, create, be brave … and the “infect a billion” creates the key metric to what I say “Yes” to.

The Great Work MBA (www.greatworkmba.com) is one of the current cool projects. It’s a free and virtual conference. 25 marvellous speakers – and thank you Nilofer for being one of them – each sharing their best insights and tools to help people do more Great Work … more of the work that matters, more of the work that makes an impact and a difference. We’ve got Oscar winners, a slew of NY Times best-selling authors, Silicon Valley smarts, the CMO of GE … it’s an eclectic and brilliant bunch of people. There’s quite a bit of effort to help it be a powerful learning experience for people, with debrief conversations and other bits and pieces to really help people convert ideas into action.

BlogIcon_Right copyCommitment = focus. It’s also a wholehearted way of loving what you do. Now the question is, what are you so committed to that you are willing to say no to everything else? And who / what / how do you need to say “no” so you can/will focus? Make that list. Make it now.

Cause your own great work relies on this one thing.


Michael and I’d be thrilled if anyone reading this signed up to the greatworkmba. It’s completely free and a real act of generosity on the part of all to infect people with the possibility virus and give them the tools to act on their own great work: www.greatworkmba.com.

Oh, and if you haven’t seen the End Malaria book, it’s available here… 100% of the proceeds go to a good cause. Over $400,000 has been raised thus far: End Malaria


7 Replies

  1. Pingback: 'Just One Thing' - Nilofer Merchant, LLC | IT a...
  2. We fight this in TV and Radio all the time
    Be known for one thing (or something) or be known for nothing
    So true in a diary recall world of small medium markets. News wants to cover everything ,while sports,talk and music tend to focus on one important deliverable for the audience.

  3. Pingback: Past History and Future Plans (Mine, All Mine) | Box of Crayons
  4. As a fledgling, it feels like saying yes to everything is the only right way it is refreshing to think of saying no as a strategy. (also, as big aside – LOVE the new format)

    1. Kathryn Minshew wrote a piece called “never say no to networking” which captures the other side of the argument — http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/10/the-serendipitous-entrepreneur/. So maybe “as a fledgling” that IS the right answer. I leave that as a question. I remember when I read her piece that one reason I got so many opportunities in my 20s was I (almost) always said raised my hand and effectively said yes. But then at 30, I was a size 12/14 and divorced, and deeply unhappy. So now 45 years of wisdom says to figure out what to say yes to and to recognize there is a cost to every yes. If it comes at the expense of health and some perspective, then (for me at least) no is a better answer — The time away from a loved one might very well cost you something/someone irretrievable. All fodder for you as you consider what is best, Monica. (and p.s. I like it too, it’s like having a new home to invite everyone over to!)

  5. Pingback: Saying ‘No’ is strategy
  6. What a beautiful name, Great Work.

    In case you were not aware, Magnum opus, The Great Work in Latin, is an ancient alchemical term. It refers to the alchemist’s dedication to a cause that is bigger than him/herself.


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