Great Work

with Mark Cook from OC Tanner

About the host

  • Jacob Shriar
  • Growth Manager
  • Officevibe
  • Montreal, Canada
  • Passionate about company culture. On a mission to make work better.

About the interviewee

  • Mark Cook
  • Research Lead
  • OC Tanner
  • Salt Lake City, Utah
  • 1,000-5,000 people

Video Summary

We talk with Mark Cook, the co-author of a study on what it takes to produce great work. We learn about the 5 characteristics that make up great work.

Related resources

Video Transcript

Jacob: Hello, everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager at Office Vibe, and today I’m with Mark Cook from O.C. Tanner and was also the co-author of a very cool study called Great Work that we’re going to talk a lot about today. So Mark thanks so much for taking some time to chat with me today.

Mark: Sure, I’m looking forward to it.

Jacob: Awesome. So very quickly, let’s start kind of high level and then we can dive deeper into it, but give us a bit of background on this Great Work study and just kind of give us a high level overview of what it is and then maybe for some context and then we can start the real good questions.

Great Work Study

Mark: Great. Okay. At O.C. Tanner we are in the business of rewarding people for extraordinary work, and about three years ago we stumbled on the idea that we have very large nominations with detailed information about a lot of work, and some portion of it is actually award winning work. So we decided to hire some PhDs from Harvard and Cambridge to design a study that was very rigorous academically and very scientific about what existed in an award winning project. What happened in an award winning project that didn’t happen in just a good project, or even just a poor project? We found some very interesting things out, and so we followed that study up with hiring Forbes organization to try and replicate some of the things we found. So that ended up being the largest ever study of award winning work ever done. So that’s what the basis is for what we’re going to talk about today I guess.

Jacob: Cool, awesome. Thanks for that background. I was looking at a blog post that you had sent me the other day, and just going through and reading, I think the comparison was great work versus I think you call it make work, and from what I was able to gather from reading the post… one of the key, core things is what I always talk about. Dan Pink famously talked about autonomy, mastery, purpose, but really that autonomy on the… I’ll let you talk about it, but correct me if I’m wrong. I think autonomy had a huge part to do with, well, at least the story you read about the convicts. I’ll post the blog post up when we actually put this video live on the site, but autonomy had a lot to do with kind of what the difference was between let’s say we call make work, just regular work versus that great work. Is that true?

Mark: Yeah. Essentially what’s going on we discovered is a lot of people are focused on our boss. So it’s autonomy in a little different way. A lot of people are thinking their boss needs to be a great boss in order for them to do great work. Somehow it’s the leadership, the management, the company that really lets you and gives you permission to do great work. What we found, especially in interviewing 250 of the 10,000 projects that we analyzed, is that really it doesn’t matter paradoxically what the kind of boss is that you have. Sure, a boss facilitates and leadership adds to great work. That’s certainly true. But like I said, paradoxically it’s also true that some of the people with the worst bosses find a way to make a difference for their internal clients and their external clients and their organizations. So it’s not always the boss. Sometimes you just have to take it on yourself to make a difference. And that’s the mindset that the people that do great work have, is they’re thinking about what difference can I make that those people would love. They’re not always thinking about themselves and their boss. Does that make sense?

Five Characteristics Of Great Work

Jacob: Yeah, yeah, totally. That was great. In the study you talk about five… I don’t know if I want to use characteristics or actions, but five things I guess that you really found in your study. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Mark: Yeah, and maybe I’ll take them one at a time. They’re very different ideas. Let me give you a little foundation for that. In the study, we found that it doesn’t matter what your inherent characteristics are like your age or your gender. It doesn’t even matter how big your organization is that you work for. Those things don’t correlate very much at all with what kind of product you produce or results you get. What really starts to make a difference is some of the traditional things we think of in HR when we hire people. Like does the person have initiative, are they proactive? Do they have a tendency to want to help others instead of help themselves? We call this proactive social behavior, and other items that we usually hire for. Those start to affect results. But the big shocker in this study is that we found that there are a few things that people do in an award winning project that matters far more than their personality at work or their tendencies as a worker.

So we can go through a project and we can ask certain questions. Did they do this? Did they do that? And that will predict much more what kind of results they got than what their tendencies are as a person. So that’s the foundation for where those five come from. So we’ve found several things that affect results, but we took the top five that really affect results most and can be put into a model, and we put it into an approach, we created an approach that anyone could follow to do work. So let me give you an example. The first thing we found is that people who do really good work rush in with their expertise and say, “I understand how to do this,” and they tackle the project immediately and they show great initiative. What’s interesting though is that people that do extraordinary work… award winning work has much better results than a good project. They don’t dive right in. They don’t show that classic initiative at the very beginning. What they do is they take a moment and pause, and they either explicitly ask themselves, or they at least think about it in an interrogative moment where they think, “What could I change on this project or in this aspect of my work that would really make a difference that those people that I’m actually doing it for would love?”

It sounds like a simple idea, but the data showed that very few people take that movement to pause and really orient their work before tackling it, before beginning it toward the people who really have to use it or really are going to benefit from it. Those people that do that gained much higher results than people that don’t do that, they just dive right in. So that’s the first one. We call that “Ask the right question.” What it means is ask the right question of yourself, and it turns out the right question sounds a lot like “What difference could I make on this project that those people would love?” So what difference could I make that those people would love? And whatever that version is for their project or their aspect of work, tailoring it to their own circumstance and the people they’re actually serving. We heard a lot of questions a lot like that that produced many answers instead of that aggressive attitude that only produces one answer, one possibility. Does that make sense?

Jacob: Yeah, totally. This is super interesting. So let’s do this one by one, because I really want to take this slow. This is so important. So let’s just recap here. Number one is don’t dive right in. Maybe take your time to pause…

Mark: Ask the right question. Don’t dive right in. Ask the right question.

Jacob: Interesting. Ask the right question. So that’s number one. So what’s number two?

Mark: So number two, there are two actually that are siblings. They’re kind of Siamese twins and they happen in different orders on different projects in reality. The way that I describe it is, the second one would be what we call talking to your outer circle. What we discovered on the good projects is that people really know that team execution is important. So teamwork is as important as we always say it is. But it turns out that teamwork and really gelling and executing well is a great recipe for achieving what’s expected, what is really good, the staples of our society, and that’s great. But the extraordinary projects, the extraordinary results weren’t achieved by people hunkering down and executing with their immediate team. What those projects look like is one of the team members wandered outside of that inner circle and found some particular expert to get a breakthrough idea from. That act of talking to your outer circle, someone on the project, or if you’re doing a project alone, wandering out and talking to someone in your outer circle to get breakthrough ideas.

In reality they’d have to talk to several people, but they usually get a breakthrough. For example, let me give you one example. There is a gentleman at Harvard, a famous research, Karim Lakhani, and he studied this concept hundreds of times in experiments and studies of work, and he gives a great example. He talks about Colgate Palmolive. They had a group of chemists and engineers trying to solve a problem of fitting the toothpaste into the toothpaste tube better and more efficiently, reducing the cost obviously for consumers, and they just couldn’t solve it. So they put it on a public platform and they just put the problem out there and they said, “Please, we’re looking for a breakthrough idea. Can someone help us?” It wasn’t a member of their own team or even their own company or someone within the realm of chemistry or engineering that helped them come up with the breakthrough idea. The breakthrough idea really came from a gentleman who was a physicist and he said, “You know, fluoride is naturally negatively charged. If you just put a positive charge inside the toothpaste tube, it’ll suck it right in and you’ll be able to get this to happen.”

So they followed his advice and sure enough, it happened. That’s the kind of talking to your outer circle that will really bring a breakthrough idea into your project. We’re not talking about heavy collaboration or inviting the whole company in to help you execute. We’re just talking about getting team members to talk to their outer circle, searching for a breakthrough idea and bringing it back to the team that will execute it.

Jacob: Very, very cool. Yeah, I love the power of crowd sourcing. I think, I could be wrong but I think the website that you’re referring to is InnoCentive, which I know they do a lot of that. Yeah, okay. Perfect. Very, very cool website.

Mark: It’s important to note that we often think of the power of technology and crowd sourcing, and then you get to social media and as soon as you start thinking about those sorts of things, you realize that there are a million mediums to talk to your outer circle with. But we can never forget that personal contact as well. We found so many cases where the nuances of sitting in front of someone and really talking to them thoroughly so you can get the breakthrough is important. It’s not a matter of networking. We’re not trying to just meet people. We’re really trying to give them an opportunity to mentor us, give us their attitudes and interests and opinions, and even their guidance and advice on our particular difference we’re trying to make. Sometimes there are different mediums. It’s not crowd sourcing or social media. It’s about two human beings exchanging ideas floating around their neuronal network so to speak. Does that make sense?

Jacob: Yeah. That’s interesting. That actually does make a lot of sense. So let’s talk about the next ones. Let’s go for number three I guess.

Mark: Okay. So number three would be something we call “see for yourself.” I’ll give you a perfect example of what this is. I just heard about it from a client yesterday. We obviously have created workshops around this principle. It’s not just a New York Times best seller. We created workshops because these things really happen in projects, and we felt confident that if we worked long enough, we could design a way to get them into people’s actual work that hadn’t done them yet. So we worked a year and a half on creating a workshop. So this example comes from someone who came to a workshop, and I just heard it last night; so an IT executive, he’s a VP of the third-largest healthcare organization in the world, obviously I won’t name it, but his name is Don and he gave me a great example. He says, “You know, I sent two storage technicians to your workshop last time and they had this problem that they were having this extraordinary amount of data getting captured from our sleep lab.”

A big hospital system has a big sleep lab. He says, “You can imagine how much data is created when you’re hooking up hundreds of human beings to wires on their head and skin and heart rates, etc., and then you’re videotaping them all night long. It’s an extraordinary amount of data that’s created, and our storage technicians are having a very difficult time engineering a way to control that. It spiked recently, and it looked like we were going to have to buy as much of 15 more terabytes that needed to be fully RAID protected, etc.” Really high-quality storage because of the healthcare data, he said, “That was going to cost me more than $100,000, so I sent these technicians to your workshop and at one part of the workshop you send them on an activity that’s called see for yourself.

What that requires is that they go to the specific, actual place where the people are using their work,” and in this case it was the sleep lab. And those engineers had never seen the sleep lab. They went to the sleep lab and they saw step-by-step how the process works and how it interacts with applications. They came back to the workshop that same day, because we do it right in the middle of the workshop, and they came back and they solved a 15 terabyte problem. He said, “You saved us over $100,000 that day because they actually went to the sleep lab and that held the clue to bring back the breakthrough idea and find a way to solve this 15 terabyte problem.” So that’s a good example of what seeing for yourself is. It’s going out into the wild where your work is received, and not just talking to someone because we did that in talking to your outer circle, but really seeing how your work is used really throws together some interesting ideas that you would never have gotten any other way. One final thought on that that’s interesting.

A lot of people actually work in the same environment that people use their work, like ER doctors. They work in the ER. But they have also noted that when you look through the lens of this difference that you’re trying to make, that those other people would love that are receiving your work, it’s like you’ve never been to that environment. You notice things that you’ve never noticed for 20 years working in that exact same ER department. They have case after case showing examples like that. So it’s really seeing for yourself. Like going to the environment where the work’s received, but also looking through the lens of the difference that you’re trying to make and getting ideas for that. So that’s the number three top action that affected results in the study.

Jacob: Very, very cool. Let’s jump right away to number four. I can’t wait; this is so interesting. Let’s go to number four.

Mark: Okay. So those first three actions that we saw taking place in the project, we call them skills because if we do something more than once then it becomes a skill. They were actions in award winning projects, but our hopefulness that other people will adopt them and at least use them twice, we call them skills. So those first three skills are really an innovation set where people can ideate and come up with ideas. The first one orients you a bit, ask the right question. The twins next generate a lot of different ideas and ways that would never happen just brainstorming. And then the next action that we saw that we hope becomes a skill for people is something we call improve the mix. What we found is that after you flood a table, metaphorically with all these ideas and you’re piling all these ideas up by going through these first three methods, you get to a place where it’s now time to really innovate. Not just create ideas, but really actually implement the innovation. Improving the mix is not about trying to do a hundred new things all at once, or even starting from a white board.

It’s really looking through those ideas, sorting through those ideas, looking at currently the elements of what’s delivered, whether it’s a service or a product or a process, really examining each element of what’s currently being delivered, finding the stale ones, and replacing them with some of those new ideas that you’ve gathered during the ideation stages. So improving the mix is just changing most of the time just one thing, and in ideal situations two. It’s not changing three or twenty or a hundred things in what you do. Even if it’s something new that you’ve never done, it’s really taking what’s been done by others or what you’ve done in the past and just tweaking one or two things, adding or removing an element or two to improve the mix. That’s how we put it.


Jacob: Nice. Yeah, very, very cool. Just out of curiosity… first of all, I want to let you dive into number five, but how long did this study take? Over how much time did the study run for, if you could just answer that very quickly and then if you can just dive into number five.

Mark: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. What we did is we have five million records of great work. As I said earlier, only 1.7 million of those actually won awards. What we did over three years is we took out samples of 10,000 award winning projects and coded with two separate research teams to make sure that subjectivity wasn’t a problem, and we coded the incidence of work for the increase in results and anything we could see that would’ve led to the results at all. Then we compared those two teams’ notes, and they had over 80% agreement, so subjectivity was handled. And then what we did was we got some very serious mathematicians to help us create models for when these things happened and what results were achieved. So we identified upwards of nine types of different results. Things like increase in value, longevity of the result, etc., and really found different types of results and what could happen with each of these five things that we’re now marching through and how they affect work in different ways. So it took three and a half years to do that, including the replicated study by the Forbes organization’s research arm.

Jacob: Cool, yeah. If you don’t mind, let’s step to number five.

Mark: Okay. So five is the last in the model, and very similarly to what I said earlier, the first, ask the right question is kind of where everyone started in reality, and this last one is where everyone finished, and the three in the middle in reality happen in different orders and obviously in slightly different ways with these award winning projects. But this last one always happened at the end. It really is about the finish line. Where does a person or a team see the finish line? We call this deliver the difference, because often an individual or a team will be focused on the work. One example that we tell quite often is about a hospital janitor. Most of the janitors were focused on emptying the trash cans and dusting the windows and cleaning the windows as quickly as possible because that was their expected job. And yet the people that did extraordinary work in that role did not focus on that expected work. They focused on the purpose of the work, which was to actually deliver a difference for the patient and the family.

So they didn’t just make a lot of noise and rattle through the room, disturbing little children and sick people to get their job done. They were focused on the right difference which was to heal the patient, to comfort the family. So we found one example. A gentleman named Moses who was working with a mother, Mindy and her son, Mackay and the family, and instead of coming into the room abruptly and making a lot of noise, he really focused on being quiet and easing into a conversation with this small boy. Every time he came in to empty the trash, he would give him words of wisdom and words of encouragement. Like, I can see that you’re eating now. You know when you start to eat, that means you’re getting better. You’re going to lick this sickness.

He would give him these small encouragements, and it lifted not only Mackay the patient, but it lifted the parents so much that he was really making a difference from his role as a janitor because he saw himself as part of the healing team, and he saw himself not just getting the work done and moving on to the next room, because that’s a little more akin to sending the work in an email or shipping the package or hoping it gets there or getting the check marks on your task list, but that’s not what we saw in award winning work. In award winning work we saw people following their work all the way through the experience of the other person. That’s why we call it deliver the difference. So they would see, and get feedback, and look at faces and see if they’re actually delivering a difference. I think one of the simplest ways to put this is chefs. We talked to a lot of chefs in this study, and one of the chefs we talked to said, “You know, when we deliver a meal, at least at a special event, we send the sous chef out, or I go out, or a staff member goes, and we look for two things. We look for as the plated food is presented to the customer if there’s a positive reaction on their face or if it causes a positive conversation, and if it does we know we’ve done that job. And then we look for their first bite, and if they take a first bite and they see a positive result, that staff member sees a positive facial expression or again, a positive conversation spark, then we know that we’ve delivered a difference. We don’t just make excellent food and taste it in the kitchen ourselves. We follow it up.” So even things that sometimes we think aren’t measurable in really a human result, an emotional result, can be brought down to a yes or no binomial did you make a difference or did you stop when your work was done? And so that’s deliver the difference, that’s the last top finding that we had in the study.

Jacob: That was great. And that was actually a really beautiful story about the janitor. That was… so nice. I’d love to ask you, what’s the most surprising thing that you found across in this whole study? What was the thing that kind of shocked you or surprised you the most?

Mark: Yeah, I wonder. It may not be super popular in a completely HR crowd, but I think your business people and your business audience will understand this. We have, and I include myself and our company in the HR audience, we’re very much in that business and a lot of years have gone by where we have seen engagement as the Holy Grail. We want employees to feel engaged. Some are, some aren’t, and sometimes we correlate things, correlate engagement to things like results. It turns out that getting someone engaged can happen by building a new lunch room or creating a new program for wellness that engages them in things that are not work related necessarily. And so they become happier, but they may not feel the joy and the satisfaction that sometimes isn’t fun and sometimes isn’t always happy, but joy is an outcome from a result.

How that happens is that instead of getting an employee before they do the work excited and motivated and excited and inspired all the time and then expecting them to do great work, what we discovered in this study is it’s a little bit a chicken and the egg, that if you give an employee an opportunity or the employee senses an opportunity to make a difference for someone else, a client, an internal client, the organization, that if they especially get through a couple of those first three skills that we talked about, the most impactful being see for yourself. If they actually put themselves in the environment where the work they’re about to do is received, and they become part of the opportunity or problem, something happens in their heart so to speak, and we see huge increases. You are 17 times more likely to get excited about your work if you see for yourself than if you don’t for example. And what that means… and by the way, you’re 1200% more likely, or 12 times more likely to thrill the other person that you’re doing work for if you see for yourself for example.

So what that says is that it’s not always the answer to try to get employees engaged and then expect them to do great work. Sometimes it’s more important to teach them how to do great work and give them the opportunity to do even a small piece of great work, and as they begin to do that and innovate in a very safe, everyday way, they’ll become part of it and they’ll get inspired by the work and the purpose of the work, and that’s the best way to get people engaged. Great work. So it’s kind of a little contrary to what we traditionally thought. That’s been the most surprising finding I think.

Jacob: Very, very interesting. My last question for you before we go is you’ve said before that it’s sometimes more important to hire actions than it is the right person. I love if you can maybe break that down. What does that mean exactly?

Mark: Well it refers to what I said at the first of the interview, which is we can hire someone who has a sense of mission, we can hire someone who has proven initiative, and we can hire someone who has a helpful mindset and even feels safe in an organization speaking up. Those are some of the variables that absolutely proved to improve results. We in HR should keep hiring for those things. But those could increase… in our second study with Forbes, those could increase a result 16%. We’re talking about a very robust result, which we need to find as increasing the monetary value, having a longevity of a final outcome, increasing quality. All those things had to average above expected result. And so if you are hiring someone to get an above-average result, you can increase that likelihood up to 16% if you hire the right person. But if you do just four of the things that we’ve been talking about, you can increase the likelihood of extraordinary results up to ten times. So in the Forbes study, they showed an increase in result was potentially 36% greater.

If you think about anyone’s result, if you could increase someone’s result 36%, that would be an exciting thing. If you can find a plan and an ability and a way, and you could plan on even developing through your talent system these actions, these really important actions that affect results, the math shows that you’re going to be better off performance-wise if you make sure people are doing these things. What that says is it turns it into a very interesting, and actually a pretty simple, not easy, but a simple management philosophy where you’re in your natural flow of conversations and meetings with an individual or a team.

You’re asking them if they’ve done these things on the particular work that you’re covering and you’ll find out that most of the time they haven’t done some of these things or any of these things. And these are the things that we all recognize should happen. Even before they hear what we found, people recognized that these are good things to do and they just don’t know how potent they are. So in asking an individual or a team, “Have you really asked yourselves what those people you’re delivering this to would love? Tell me about those answers. What kind of answers did you come up with for that?”

Often you’ll hear, “Well clearly, we know the work and it should happen like this, and we thought it would improve if we did x, y, and z.” And you’ll hear a lot about me, me, me, our team, our organization, and you won’t hear a lot of answers about the people who are actually receiving the work. So that’s an opportunity for a manager to say, “Why don’t you set aside some time, find the right moment, schedule it, and just really wrack your own expert mind. What would those people love in a difference?” And then you can go through each of the five in that way and encourage them in the next week, if they haven’t already done it in the previous week, to do some of these things and therefore increasing their ability to improve results.

Jacob: That was incredible. This was honestly amazing, amazing content. Really, Mark, I just want to thank you so much for taking some time to chat with me. We’ll end it here, and hopefully we can do this again sometime soon.

Mark: Thank you. Love to do it.

Jacob: Awesome. Take care.

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