A 3-Part Outline to Michael Bungay’s Guide to Greatness 

A 3-Part Outline to Michael Bungay’s Guide to Greatness 

January 29, 2018 | WorkTango

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Recently at WorkTango, we had Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit do an amazing Webinar entitled: “The Five Question Leader”. His insights are deep, and they’ll make you think. Here are 3 points outlining 1) the challenges we face, 2) the inspirations we can reach for, and 3) the five questions to get us there.

I. The 3 Vicious Circles that these 5 Questions will Help You Escape From

As a leader, you may find yourself stuck in vicious cycles that drain your energy and your inspiration, such as:

1. The Over-Dependent Team

  • Michael describes this situation as: “The more my team needs me, the more I give them the answers, but the more I give them answers, the more they need me.”
  • You end up with a weak team and little to no initiative. In Michael’s words: “You’ve basically created vampires—they suck your blood, suck your energy.”

2. A Sense of  Overwhelm

  • Michael describes this as feeling like: “The more I get distracted, the more I lose focus, and the more I lose focus, the more stuff floods in, and the more stuff floods in the more distracted I get.”
  • You feel scattered and under constant pressure. There’s a constant state of anxiety, you’re still not on top of things. What’s going on?

3. A Sense of Disconnect from the Work that Matters

  • Michael describes this as feeling like: “I don’t have impact, and I feel like giving up, but the more I give up, the less impact I have.. I eventually give up and resign to feeling like a small meaningless cog in a huge, heartless machine.”
  • It’s a hopeless feeling when you don’t feel like what you’re doing really matters.

II. The 3 different Types of Work and how these 5 Questions will Inspire You to be Great

1. Bad Work

Michael Bungay is from Australia, and he asks us to think about a wombat, an animal which slightly resembles a small hairy hippopotamus. Michael says: “Bad work is Wombat work”.

  • W  aste
  • O   f
  • M  oney
  • B   andwith
  • A   nd
  • T   ime

Wombat work is the mind-numbing, soul – sucking, life – crushing work that makes you want to pick up a pen and stab yourself in the eye. Michael describes it as when you think to yourself: Why am I doing this? How did I end up here?!

2. Good Work

  • Good work, Michael shares, is basically your job description. It’s productive and efficient, getting done what your boss and his boss want to get done. It’s the important stuff.
  • And yet sometimes you get stuck in a comfortable rut. You’re not stretching and growing. “This isn’t the best version of yourself,” Michael says. “It’s you as a 6.5/10, not 9/10.”
  • It feels like you’re going up an endless staircase but never really making an impact.

3. Great Work

  • Michael defines this as the work that has both impact and meaning.
  • Impact is what serves the organization, what makes a difference. Meaning is the work that lights you up, that you care about, that speaks to who you are. Michael describes it as that work that makes you smile and think: This is why I signed up for this job in the first place. This is what I want to be doing. 
  • You as the leader create the focus, the space, and the resilience to do more great work. It’s both exciting and scary. There’s so much potential. But you have to move out of your comfort zone. You have to take a risk.

Michael’s Circle Exercise:

  • Draw a big circle and divide it into 3 segments illustrating how much bad work, good work, and great work you’re doing. Look at the current mix. Are you happy with it?
  • In another of his excellent reads, Do More Great Work, Michael Bungay outlines 15 exercises to help you identify, start, and sustain great work projects. The Circle exercise is the first.

III. The 5 Questions that will Help You Escape the Vicious Cycles and do Great Work 

1. Kickstart Question: What’s on your mind?

  • Write down what you think your “great work” might be, something that you want to spend the next 60-90 days focusing more on.
  • It could be the decision to delegate more, to make your team stronger, to assist your manager more effectively.
  • It could be to find more passionate talent for your company, to map out your next steps, to develop key relationships.

2. The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge here for you?

  •  Michael specifies that the wording here is important.  “What’s the challenge” is an okay question, but it’s still too vague.
  • “What’s the real challenge?” becomes more powerful because there’s more intensity.
  • “What’s the real challenge here for you?” makes it most emphatic. The focus isn’t about the topic anymore, rather it’s about how you’re dealing with the topic. What’s your particular role and place in this?

3. AWE (obviously an awesome question): And What Else?

  • The first answer someone gives you is never the only answer, and it’s rarely the best answer. Slow down. Think it through. Think down to the root, to the core.
  • So you want to do some amazing things, but you have some challenges. What else? You want to make your goals a bigger priority in your company. What else? You want to intentionally clear some space in your mind, and in your day, to make this a reality.
  • The point of these questions is in making them personal. It’s not about the challenge, it’s about how you’re dealing with the challenge and what you’re going to do.

4. The Foundation Question: The Goldfish Question

  • Michael shares how the joy of adult-to-adult relationships  is that you can ask for what you want, knowing that the answer might be “no”. However, most of us aren’t too good at asking for what we want, nor are we typically very effective in responding to whatever the request might be.
  • So we must take some time to figure things out. What do you want? What do you really want? What else do you want? So what do you really want? Keep asking–don’t settle for the surface. Stay curious longer.
  • These questions are recyclable. E.g. If you discover what it is that they really want, then you can go back to the focus question and ask: “if this is what you really want, then what’s the real challenge?” This new knowledge will take the conversation down to a deeper level.

5. The Learning Question: What was most useful/valuable here for you?

  • One of the most effective things you can do, Michael says, is to be a teacher. To help your people grow through learning.
  • But in order to be a great teacher, you need to learn how people learn things. People usually don’t learn when you tell them things. They just don’t. People also don’t even really learn when they do things.
  • People learn when they reflect back and have an aha moment. They get there through questions and answers, eventually revealing the aha moment for themselves. This is how they extract value for themselves and are then give feedback about it. This is how they learn.

So ask them the questions. Let them reach their own conclusion. If you only take one thing away from this seminar, Michael urges, it’s to “Stay curious longer”. Rush more slowly to action and advice giving. Let them find the magic for themselves, and lead them to lead themselves into greatness.


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