Hansen, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More (Book Review) by jgn on Saturday, March 3, 2018 in Reading, Reviews, and Management

Morten T. Hansen's Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More is an attempt to explain how high-performers outdo their peers and deliver higher-quality work. The essential teaching of the book is that such performers "do less, then obsess": That is, they are very good at prioritizing, focusing on the top one to three things -- then they really bear down on those things to the exclusion of everything else. There's a lot more going on, but I think almost anyone would appreciate reading his chapter two, where he explains this idea in great detail. I was just looking over my own work goals for the coming year, and based on this book, I don't think I have enough focus. I have not created challenges for myself that will allow me to "do less, then obsess" and truly succeed at the genuinely most important things. I need to declutter my work for the coming year.

An aside on evidence: Hansen claims that the book is "scientifically validated" (p. 205) and there is a lengthy research appendix, but it must be noted that the claims are based on self-reported questionnaires: there is no experimental methodology, nor is there any predictive quality to the book. What I am trying to get at is that even if you change your behaviors in line with the book's claims about performance, there is little here to suggest that your performance will necessarily improve. In fact, there's really no definition of what "performance" is. The author associates high performance with notions of "success" and "greatness at work" (p. 3). The compound of claiming scientific validity with a lack of definitions of terms and experimental method is typical of business books (see The Management Myth in particular; my review); I mention this just to calibrate the claims.

With that past us . . . this is a really good book. The claims may have some merit, but the stories are what set the book apart. For instance, we learn of people who have spread themselves too thin, and/or have hurt themselves by making things over-complex (pp. 21-22). The book contains some great directives on how to overcome these inhibitors of performance: One I have found helpful for myself is the notion that one must sometimes "tie yourself to the mast," and for some time just ignore everything. Sometimes that's the only thing that will work. Pick your focus time in advance, close the door, turn off the phone, and do nothing else until done (see pp. 33-34).

There are other insights that made me stop in my tracks. One is that you might judge your work by how much others benefit from it rather than whether you have merely met your goals. In other words, the value assessment is not going to come from you; it's going to come from others (p. 48).

Then there's the question: Well, how do your refine your own work to get that short list? The book devotes all of chapter 4 to a strategy called "looping" where you are constantly studying your own work, seeking to refine it. The book advocates practice, but especially practice where you are concentrating self-consciously on getting better. Your practice should be quite mindful, not automatic. I was reminded of the agile/Scrum idea that one must "inspect and adapt" in order to improve.

Chapter 5 is about the compound of passion and purpose: Hansen says you need both. According to the book, when you're passionate about work, you're energized by it. Purpose is about creating values for others. I like these definitions (see p. 90). What was for me a tricky point is . . . why must you have passion and purpose both together? The reason is this: If you have only purpose (bring value to others) but you don't actually enjoy it, you'll burn out. If you have only passion (you love what you're doing) but you don't generate value for others, your work is . . . meaningless. Indeed, when you are merely passionate and ignore purpose, you may find that your work causes harm because you are only thinking about yourself (see pp. 104-106).

From here, the book expands out to show how to bring your passion and purpose to others in the company and get buy-in for projects, how to collaborate better (not too much, and not too little; this is an interesting tonic to over-collaboration which I have seen a fair amount in the workplace). Finally, the book shifts the focus to "do less, and obsess" outside of work. The counsel here should be read by anyone who is overwhelmed by the complexities of managing home and work. Here and elsewhere, due attention is paid to differences in these patterns across gender.

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