Interview with Morten Hansen about Being Great at Work

Morten Hansen is a world-renowned organizational consultant who is a thought leader in many areas of business, some of the most notable being collaboration and high performance. Morten wrote the book Great by Choice with Jim Collins. His new book, Great at Work, discusses ways top performers work less while achieving more. Morten holds a Ph.D. from Stanford and has held various teaching assignments at some of the world’s leading business schools including Harvard, INSEAD, and the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley.

1) In conducting research for your new book Great at Work, you discovered that top performers spend their hours differently, and in somewhat counter-intuitive ways than one would expect. What is one of the traits/habits of these peak performers that surprised you?

One of the findings that surprised me the most is that top performers seemingly collaborate less than their counterparts. This is not to suggest that top performers are not great collaborators. What my research does suggest is that top performers are very deliberate about what collaborations they accept—meaning they often say ‘no’ to projects more than they say ‘yes’. However, when they do say ‘yes’ to collaborating they go all in. This allows top performs to fittingly maintain focus on a limited number of projects, mitigating any need to dilute their energy at the expense of not performing well on what really matters.

2) As workers, we seemingly spend too much time simply disseminating and regurgitating existing company information through meetings and in-person presentations. As a result, we leave little time for learning. What are steps organizations (and individuals) can take to change this?

First, we need to understand that meetings are most useful when reserved for discourse and debate. Organizations often underestimate the opportunity cost associated with meetings. If a meeting of ten employees in not effective, one might wrongfully attribute the time as an hour wasted—but the true cost is not simply the wasted hour. The time wasted is the cumulative time of every employee in the ineffective meeting [ten hours in the hypothetical example]. Even worse is the fact that the result of a non-effective meeting is generally the need for another meeting. Bad meetings have a propensity to perpetuate more meetings. There is a reason the coffee cup adorned with the words, “I Survived Another Meeting That Should Have Been an Email,” exists.

Why do we have a meeting when the objective [of the meeting] can be aptly achieved with an annotated PowerPoint presentation, saving everyone time? Yet, that is the state of most business meetings today. Even worse, now you see people having pre-meetings for meetings. There are edge cases where this might make sense. For instance, a presentation to a C-suite, a Board, and/or an investor group. That said, the trend of poorly run meetings is alarming. The best way to change this is to reduce the number of ineffective meetings your organization allows to take place.

3) You mention in your writing that one of the best ways to cope with complexity is, “fight it and simplify.” What are some strategies that one can utilize (regarding their work and/or daily routine) to evaluate what has enough merit to stay, and what can be successfully shaved away (with limited risk)?

To answer your question effectively, let me draw a distinction between complexity and someone with a massive task list. These are two different problems, with somewhat different strategies to resolve. There are various accessible tactics one can use to deal with a personal task list. Regarding complexity, complexity is generally a managerial problem—because managers tend to be great at adding complexity but can have a tougher time when it comes to simplifying processes. There are a number of reasons this is likely the case, but a couple are that: 1) complexity lends itself to vanity key performance indicators (KPIs) which are easier to massage/manipulate—or worse contrive—so that if a meaningful KPI is off a compelling story can still be told; 2) Similarly, complexity often looks like work.

For example, the communication platform Slack is growing in popularity. In certain business applications, Slack likely has its place. However, I have consulted with various companies using Slack. Invariably when I ask a CIO how they are measuring the effectiveness of tool like Slack, they say, “we are not”. They see their workers always using it, so they make the assumption that the addition of this new tool has benefit. People are busier, yes, but what should be measured is how the tool has increased or decreased performance and that is not taking place. When you add or make a change to a system, it is important to accurately measure the effect on the KPIs that matter. Unfortunately, all too often this does not take place.

To fight complexity, you need to look at the established system and/or processes to see what can be eliminated without an effect on achieving your primary objective(s). Evaluate what steps and resources are not essential. Ask yourself, “are the KPIs currently in place good measures for what the system is trying to achieve? Or, do the existing KPIs pull focus away from what is truly desired? What can be simplified without affecting the end result?” Answering these questions honestly, and making corrections and improvements will improve focus, as well as free up resources, to move the most important objectives forward with more force and better performance.

4) You advocate that people only try to improve one skill at a time? What is the rationale here? And, how can one determine the threshold of mastery to know that they can effectively begin to work on additional skills?

From the various academic work on deliberate practice, we know that most people get better at something when they focus their learning on a specific task. It is difficult for us to get good at something if we are diluting our attention on several things at once. While teaching at the Harvard Business School I had to acquire skills in case method [teaching methodology] to effectively lead the classroom. When I first began teaching at Harvard I found it somewhat challenging because there are at least five things you need to be really good at to master this teaching method. Trying to master all these skills at once meant I was not effectively focusing on any of them [and it wasn’t effective]. Instead, I focused on what I believed was the most important aspect until I felt ready to focus on the next.

I am not aware of an evidence-based threshold of mastery that one can use as a measuring stick to move on to another skill. Six weeks might be a good place to start, anecdotally, at the discretion of the individual. If someone can effectively learn a new skill every 6 weeks, that would equate to 8 new skills in a year, which represent significant personal growth. The takeaway is that there is evidence to suggest that working on 8 skills at 6-week intervals is likely more effective than trying to learn 8 things all at once over the course of a year.

5) There are times when advice about “working smarter” is viewed critically. For instance, when Tim Ferriss popularized the concept of batching email communication (to increase efficiency) many knowledge workers scoffed at the notion that the advice was practical in the real world. What is a piece of advice you can give about working smarter that anyone can put into practice regarding, “work less and achieve more”?

For those that work for someone else, it is learning to feel comfortable saying “no” to your boss. This, of course, is a skill that will be refined differently somewhat and is dependent on each person’s particular situation [and their relationship with their boss], but this is something many people do not do well—if at all. However, when you develop this skill it gives you back more energy and focus, which you can apply to achieving more based on all the principles we have been discussing (and I further outline in Great at Work).

Successfully applying this advice will require trust and communication with your boss, something you will need to develop if it is not inherent. While at Boston Consulting one of my colleagues successfully achieved this by simply sending out a weekly recap email to those he directly reported. Before I was aware of this practice, myself and others in the firm were always amazed at this person’s capacity to achieve while the rest of us at times felt overwhelmed. Come to find out it was his ability to communicate and negotiate his priorities that set him apart from others.

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