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'Why did I do it?' The genesis of great work

By David Sturt

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 8 2013 4:09 p.m. MDT

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com

When you think about work you have done that you are particularly proud of — work that generated a great result — have you ever stopped to ask yourself the question, “Why did I do it?”

Over the course of a career, people come to see the value of great work — work that produces better-than-expected results. It moves careers and companies forward. It increases revenues, drives efficiency gains, creates successful new products and strengthens customer relationships. It is the quiet, invisible engine of human progress. But great work almost always takes a lot more energy than good work — more passion, longer hours, new thinking and unexpected challenges.

So why do people do it?

There are some interesting clues in research from Wharton professor Adam Grant.

In one study, Grant randomly selected half of the telemarketers raising money for a university’s scholarship fund and arranged for them to meet one-on-one with a scholarship recipient to hear their story. The telemarketers learned firsthand how the scholarship helped a person who wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to go to college.

Then Grant sent the telemarketers back to the phones to see what would happen. There was a surprising change. The group who had met scholarship recipients face-to-face worked dramatically harder. They were more engaged, creative and effective on the phones. When the study was over, the callers who understood how their work might make a difference for potential scholarship recipients raised 400 percent more money than those who did not.

Interesting. Their engagement, activity and results were fueled by the opportunity to make a difference people would love.

We discovered similar findings when we analyzed 10,000 detailed descriptions of award-winning work and conducted more than 250 one-on-one interviews with people who did something extraordinary. We were curious to find out what they did and why they did it.

One of the people we interviewed, Mike Last, graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in electrical engineering. After 12 years at an engineering job, he realized that he needed a change. Last likes playing golf. He knew that in Atlanta it was hard for golfers new to the area to find out where they could play, and harder still to get a tee time. Many golfers who did not plan ahead found themselves missing out on a beautiful afternoon of golf because they simply couldn’t find a tee time.

Last also started thinking about the golf courses. He discovered that most courses had open tee times that were going unused, representing costly missed revenue. Last saw the opportunity to make a difference that would help golfers find last-minute tee times and golf courses increase their revenue. A difference-making idea was born.

Last advertised a phone number that golfers could call to request tee times on the best local courses. He would make calls to golf courses and secure open tee times. When a golfer called in, he used a clipboard and highlighter to manage and track available times.

“I would take all the phone calls and would fax the golfer information to the courses every night, sometimes not finishing until 2 a.m.,” Last said.

Since the golfers and courses loved the new program, Last's little business grew quickly. Then along came the Internet. Last created a website called lastminutegolfer.com that included a patented booking system and accelerated the company’s growth. Now golfers entered their own information online so Last didn’t have to. He scaled his business to more than 500,000 golfers and 600 golf courses in 41 cities.

Later, Comcast’s Golf Channel came knocking, and Last sold his business. It’s now part of golfnow.com with more than 100,000 tee times on more than 5,000 courses.

I got the impression Last did not need to go back to work after selling his company, but he simply could not resist the opportunity to make another difference. He found that charities love to sell vacations at their fundraisers, but they lack access to quality vacation properties, which sit largely unused. Sound familiar? So he created geronimo.com, vacation rentals for charity, where he put the two together and is now aggregating millions of dollars in vacations to be used by nonprofits.

So why do we go through the extra effort to do great work instead of good work? Last's story, and hundreds of others like it, taught us that we get lit up and excited by opportunities to make a difference people love. We care more, we’re more creative, we work harder and we take greater interest in our work when we have a clear line of sight to those who will benefit from our work and when we see a chance to delight them with a difference they will love.

David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of the New York Times best-seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit www.greatwork.com.

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