Turn Good Work

Turn Good Work into Great Work with One Simple Question

In a small, sunbaked office building on a fish farm in southern Spain, Miguel Medialdea spoke with us about the gap between work that merely fulfills an assignment and work that makes a difference people love.

Several years ago, Veta La Palma fish farm, where Miguel works as a mid-level biologist, was a relatively eco-friendly farm located on an island in the Guadalquivir river. While Miguel and his supervisor, Narciso Mazuelos, shared a passion for running the farm “close to nature,” they were met with the same pressures many of us face in our jobs. They were expected to increase yield, productivity and profits.

For Miguel, the status quo for his industry pointed to filling the existing ponds with more fish, adding chemicals to offset diseases caused by overcrowding and harvesting more, yet smaller, fish. Rather than head down the path of least resistance, Miguel pondered a disruptive question: Why couldn’t Veta La Palma evolve into a fish farm that people love, one that helps the environment and raises fish that taste more like wild-caught fish, while also delivering the desired results?

This simple question was the genesis that changed everything.

Miguel followed this thinking with self-reflection, asking himself what he personally could improve to enhance the farming process so that people everywhere would love their product.

This simple question was the genesis that changed everything.

Like Miguel, how often in your daily work do you question your expected or normal work patterns? When you receive an assignment, do you rush to complete the task or do you pause and ask whether there is something you can improve in order to deliver something even better—a product or result that those who receive your work will love?

People Want To Make A Difference

The O.C. Tanner Institute conducted a study that asked more than 1,000 employees, beneficiaries and supervisors to answer specific questions about great work. Surprisingly, in 88 percent of cases labeled as “great work,” the worker had paused to formulate a variant of this question, “What more can I do to produce work that people love?”

This question is deceptively simple and sits at the crossroads of good work and great work. Our research showed measurable business results are significantly more likely whenever someone, somewhere, pauses to consider new ways to delight in a manner that may not have been asked for, or thought of, yet. The skill of asking the right question—of pondering what people might love—is a skill that can be mastered by all of us. And, it might create an impact far beyond your imagination.

Do you rush to complete the task or do you pause and ask whether there is something you can improve in order to deliver something even better

A Fish Farm that Looks Like a National Park

It took several years of planning and implementation, but Miguel answered his course-altering question by adding more ponds with fewer fish, plus islands, grasses, wetlands, phytoplankton, shrimp and even birds—the predators of fish—to create a
self-sustaining ecosystem where the fish on Veta La Palma live and eat in much the same way they would in nature. During our visit we were impressed that it looks more like a national park or bird refuge than a fish farm. Veta La Palma’s fish are now also in high demand (with a price to match) by the finest chefs in the world: because chefs want to support sustainable farming, because the fish are larger, prettier and healthier than fish from the competition, and because Veta La Palma’s fish taste fresh and clean, just like those caught in the wild.

Where Do You Start?

Consider what’s broken. Follow your hunches. Think out on the edge. There’s stuff going on all around you that’s in need of a level of refinement: products, processes and services that are screaming to be improved. Perhaps your organization’s sales are down or your customers are dissatisfied. Maybe a team member is under-performing or a procedure isn’t producing the desired results. Whatever it is that’s flawed, broken or otherwise counterproductive, take a moment and ask the right question. What would be cooler, better, more enjoyable? And, perhaps most of all, unexpected?

The skill of asking the right question—of pondering what people might love—is a skill that can be mastered by all of us. And, it might create an impact far beyond your imagination.

Nobody has your particular background, your experience, skills, smarts and interests. You have tremendous value, and have a work and life history that’s unique to you. Respect it. Pay attention to it. Ask why your perception is different from anyone else’s? When you arrive at an answer, the impact you can have and the improvement you can make will be clear. The door to your own great work opportunity may be about to swing wide open, just remember to be bold enough to ask the question.

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David Sturt

David Sturt is executive vice president at the O.C. Tanner Institute and author of The New York Times best-selling book, Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love (McGraw-Hill). He regularly consults with Fortune 1000 company leaders and speaks at conferences throughout North America and the United Kingdom to help others inspire and appreciate great work. He is a regular contributor at Forbes.com.

  • http://IndigoOcean.org/ Indigo Ocean

    Thanks for this article. I would add that this isn’t just the question to ask ourselves when we look at problems that need solving. We don’t need to wait for a crisis demanding innovation before we shift our point of view, and start looking at life in innovative ways. At my business technology consulting firm, we always try to over-deliver. We don’t need problems, just opportunities to wow our clients and make them feel like we’re really invested in their success as if it was our own… because it is! We become friends with many over the years, because they know we really are applying all our skills and abilities to support their happiness. Not just their wealth… their happiness. Similarly, as an entrepreneur I’ve created quite a few different service offerings, from building a land trust community for 26 poor families to creating a gift economy peer counseling community, all by asking a similar question of my life in general… what more can I offer to make a practical difference in improving at least one person’s life? You ask the question with heartfelt sincerity and a flexible mental point of view, and then you answer it with inspired action. There are no losers in a game like that.

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