The Most Powerful Question In The World of Business with Michael Bungay Stanier

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With me today is Michael Bungay Stanier who is the author of a wonderful book called The Coaching Habit, and also a founder I think, Michael is that fair to say, of Box of Crayons?

I think it’s very fair to say that I’m the founder of Box of Crayons, because I am indeed the founder of Box of Crayons.

Excellent, and Box of Crayons is a company that helps people and organizations all over the world do less good work and more great work.

Yeah. You know, what’s perfect about us talking now is that my background kind of parallels and coalesces nicely with your focus as well. My very first company, my very first job I should say was in the world of innovation and creativity. I invented products and services and try to make them successful. When I left that I moved into helping kind of large-scale change management and all of that stuff has coalesced in this whole idea of how do you help people do less good work, and by good work I mean kind of day-to-day, get things done stuff, and more of great work, and that’s the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning. So it kind of brings together strategy and innovation and change to try and helps the quality of the work being done and the meaningfulness of the work being done at the same time.

And at a very personal level because I mean, the coaching business is — most of that is one-to-one coaching I suspect right?

Well, actually our focus is giving managers the practical tools so they can coach in 10 minutes or less. So it’s less about us going in and coaching people and more about — Look, coaching is a foundational skill that’s just useful for managers and leaders and individual contributors whether you’re going through change, whether you’re trying to increase focus, you’re trying to increase engagement. So how do you make coaching accessible and useful and practical to people? Because honestly, everybody kind of knows in theory, the power of coaching, but in practice people find it very hard to stay curious, ask great questions, allow the other person to figure stuff out for themselves, and that’s the core behavior change that we work on.

Let’s unpack that because 10 minutes is — it’s a very very provocative statement in the sense of often people get set on two or three day long coaching programs. But what has to happen in that 10 minutes for it to be effective? What’s the magic? Maybe you can unpack it, a 10 minute engagement if you like?

Well the starting point is — from research we’re just as when you ask people or ask busy managers, so why don’t you coach more often? They don’t say “I’m anti-coaching,” and they don’t say, “I don’t have the skills,” and they don’t say many things. What they say is, “I just don’t have time for that.” “Have you seen my calendar?” “Have you seen my inbox?” “Have you seen my meeting requirements?” “Have you seen all the stuff I have to do?” “When would I possibly add coaching on top of all of that?” So what we started with the Box of Crayons is rather than going, “Okay, here’s Michael’s theory about coaching, now I’m going to teach it to people.” It was more, why don’t managers — and this is the essence of good innovation, right? You start with the customer need, their pain point. Why do managers find it so hard to coach? And the bottom line is two things. One is, I don’t have time for that. Secondly, coaching is a bit kind of slightly weird because I’ve met some coaches, I actually don’t want to become a coach, I just wanted to be a manager doing my job well. So one of the things that we frame up for people is that we’re not turning you into a coach, we’re just helping you be more coach-like so that you can be a more effective leader.


Then when it comes down to them, and a lot of people have absorbed the notion, that coaching has to be a kind of long, slightly weird conversation, like come into my room..

Lie down on my couch. Yes.

Yes exactly. We’re going to do our monthly coaching session, and I don’t want to say that, that’s just doesn’t work very well. Coaching once a month isn’t going to make that much of a difference, and be — everyone’s going to this kind of weird motions around, okay, this is different from how we normally work together, let’s coach now and then we can go back to being normal after that. So for us, we’re just trying to normalize this idea like coaching system is just an everyday way of working with each other and being with each other. When it comes down to it, it is simple but difficult. It’s simple because actually coaching is simply how do you stay curious just a little bit longer, how do you rush to action and advice just a little bit slower. It’s difficult because people are wired. They’ve got this deep habits about rushing to action, rushing to giving advice, providing solution, jumping in with answers, and trying to slow down that rush, that pattern of behavior is actually quite difficult.

So it’s slowing down to speed up in terms of productivity essentially? Brilliant.

So the way I try and get people interested in this is I say, “Look! Let me show you how to work less hard but have more impact.” The three core principles we talked about when we teach coaching are: be lazy, be curious, be often. Of course, again, be lazy — I have a bit of a marketing background, so you can tell in some of my language, it’s designed to be provocative because I want people to stop and go, “Wait! What does that mean?” and be lazy is one of those words and I want them to say what, “What do you mean be lazy? Do you not know how hard I’m working?” and I’m like, “I do know how hard you’re working, and how does that going for you?” The answer is “It’s not going out well.” You’re actually overwhelmed, you’ve got too much on, you’ve got emails that date back to 1998 that you haven’t answered yet. No matter how up-to-date you are on the latest productivity hack, no matter which app you’ve recently downloaded for your gadget, you’re never going to get on top of this stuff. What you actually need to do is actually go, let me work less hard, let me allow them to do the work so that I can actually help them and myself have more impact in the work that I do.

I mean, it reminds me of David Allen who I know has written very positively on your latest book, and I did want to ask about why he wants — I think you are the one person he’d recommend to have dinner with, but then it was on an earlier show and what David talks about is — I mean he’s essentially a lazy person by his own admission, so he wanted to sell a process that enabled him to be more effective. You’re essentially doing the same thing but getting the individual, the coach to do the work essentially.

Exactly. So this is not to say, “Never give advice to anybody,” it’s not to say, “Never offer help to anybody.” It is to say, “Slow down the rush to give advice,” because often if you can just ask a good question, A. They’re going to figure it out, B. They’ll figure it out from themselves, B. They’ll own the answer so it will be more kind of likely to be acted upon. The other key inside to take around is that we’re so tempted to — when we identify a problem to rush and start fixing it, but almost always the first challenge that shows up is actually not the real challenge. So here’s what starts happening, A. You’re solving the wrong problem, B. You’re solving it instead of the person you’re trying to coach and support in solving it, C. Honestly, the advice you have isn’t nearly as good as you actually think it is. So it boils down to okay, so I’m solving the wrong problem with not very good advice and I’m doing the work for somebody else, how does that equate to a good leadership? The answer is it doesn’t really. What’s great is I think coaching is part of the solution to trying to change that dynamic.

So in this lovely book that you’ve written, The Coaching Habit, the subtitle says it all where you say less, ask more and change the way you lead forever. I mean, you go through seven habits and seven questions related to — a question relating to each of those habits and you’ve touched on a number of them already. But I mean, if you were to — so let’s say we’ve got 10 minutes and you’ve spend the first 6 or 7 minutes explaining why it’s okay to be a coach, what’s the next step in terms of giving them the tools that they need in order to be effective and to transform? I suppose that it’s always at their mindset, isn’t it? Of what it means to be a manager or a leader.

Well part of it is the mindset, and part of that is — I can’t talk you into wanting to be a coach, that does never works. I’ve got a kind of point to some other way, you’re struggling and going, “Let me help you fix that.” So that’s why we tend to say rather than, “Let me teach you coaching.” We tend to say, “Hey! Let me show you how to work less hard and have more impact,” and if you say to them, “I am going to teach you how to coach,” and you’re like,” “No, okay if you must.” It sounds an HR initiative to me. If I say, “Hey, let me show you how to work less hard but have more impact,” that’s more interesting conversation right away. So helping them feel that is important. In the book, I think that the little piece that really drives people around that is a piece around the drama triangle which we can talk a bit about a bit later if that’s useful. Then I’m like, okay so the reason the first chapter of the book is not about coaching and it’s not about questions, and it’s not about how to ask questions and it’s not one of the seven essential questions, it’s actually about habit building, because what we’re trying to do here is get people to actually change the way they behave. If you don’t understand how habits work, you’re up against it because habits are the building blocks of behavior change. So it’s like, let me show you how to figure that out, and then once you know what the mechanics of doing things differently are, you can decide which questions or what behaviors you want to learn and to build new habits around.

In the book as you say, we offer seven questions, they’re all pretty good. You don’t have to do all seven questions. It’s like, where I would say it’s like pick the one that feels most useful and start there and figure it out how to build that into a habit. The habit, I guess is draws on the book by — was The Power Of Habits, which I think you refer to either in this book or somewhere else, but how does that resonate? Because it’s so simple but it’s not easy, that concept, do people’s eyes light up when they hear about habits? Because I suppose people have — is it possible they’re thinking about what else can be transformed by this methodology beyond the leadership role?

Yeah. Oh for sure. So there’s a lot out there, yeah, embarrassing large amount out there which is just a terrible, terrible advice on how to change your habits. The classic one that always makes me laugh, slash, bang my head against the wall is this whole idea of if you do it for 21 days it becomes a habit.

Well, that’s slightly less than the 10,000 hours to mastery, but similar kind of people will roll their eyeballs at that time though, didn’t they?

Yeah, and you know, everybody wants to believe that if I just did it 21 days it will become a habit, but we all kind of know that in our lives for some reason that doesn’t work, and actually I found out the origin of that fairly recently, the origin on the 21 days things comes from the early days of plastic surgery when a plastic surgeon noticed it took about three weeks for somebody to get used to their new nose after have been operated on, and somehow that’s become translated into if you do it for 21 days, it becomes a habit. So it’s completely wrong, but as you say, we draw our own, the Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit which is very good, and some other habit kind of gurus if you like. BJ Fogg, he’s got a great website called Tiny Habits. Leo Babauta who’s got a wonderful blog called Zen habits. Are you familiar with that?

Yeah, I’m familiar with that. It’s great, isn’t it?

He’s terrific. The other guy I love is Dan Coyle who wrote The Talent Code. It’s also a really insightful book. Anyway, we pull in in all of these smart people, we came up with a very simple formula, it’s called The New Habit Formula. It’s got three parts to it and here are the three parts. Part one is the phrase, “When this happens,” and when this happens what you’re doing is you’re identifying the trigger, the context, the situation where the behaviour or the old habits start. That’s really important, I mean that’s really drawing on Charles Duhigg and others going. If you don’t understand the trigger, you’ll never change your habits because if you don’t know what the trigger is, you’re already into the habit before you know what’s happening because it’s an unconscious trigger.

Then the second part of the new habit formula is instead of, and instead of means when you’re identifying , you kind of own up to the old habit, the bad habit that you’re looking to change now. Then the third step is the phrase I will in 60 seconds or less, and that’s when you identify the new habit, but then it’s really a tangible tactical habit. It’s one that you can complete in 60 seconds or less and this comes from BJ Fogg’s work where he says, “If you make a habit any bigger than that, basically your big smart brain in the power of the state is “will collude” to never quite getting around to doing that. And you know what this is like? You’re like, “Okay, going to get fit again. I was an athlete in my prime. I’m going to refine that because now I’m just a soft lumpy middle-aged man.” I mean I’m speaking for myself, not for you Mark obviously. So I’m going to start running again in the morning because I like running and I was good at it at my time. I’m going to start running. So you go to bed that night, the alarm goes at 6 o’clock the next morning and if you lie there under your duvet, your blanket, whatever, you think to yourself, “Well, I’m not going to go running this morning obviously, but the next morning, definitely I’m going to go running.” And you, you break your bold intention of “I’m going to build a habit to run every morning” just kind of sidestepped.

Now what BJ Fogg would suggest you do is something like define a 60 second habit. It could sound something like this, “When the alarm goes I’m going to get out of bed and put on my running shoes and maybe step out the door.” Here we go. So a few quick things, get out of bed, put on my running shoes and step out the door, and you’re not committing to go in for a run, you’re not committing to running every morning, you’re not doing any of that. You’re committing to the 60 second habit, like the micro habit. That is the first step in getting something going. In some ways this draws upon David Allen’s work, who you referenced before. Because you know, in getting things done, one of the things that David says is, “You can’t do a project, you can only do the next action.” One of things I think is very clever and sometimes gets overlooked at getting things done is part of the secret of building momentum, of stopping procrastination is to figure out what the next action is that just gets a little bit of momentum going. It’s similar with the BJ Fogg insight.

Yeah. One of the things that strikes me about what is missing though, is the congratulations. Because typically we tend to be sort of a high achievers and we’re quite hard on ourselves, and the idea know. It’s just they drop from a moment you’re like, “Okay. I’m a high achiever but Mark, I don’t want to speak for you, you’re probably not a high achiever.” You have the harsh podcast!

But yeah, my point as I’m sure you know it very well. We’re not wired to actually congratulate ourselves to create some kind of impulsive emotional feedback loop associated with just putting on your shoes and going out the front door, because we all — If you’re able to that, that’s sort of I suppose, what would that do? It strengthens the neural pathways, it strengthens your ability to yeah — well actually that was worth it. I got something out of it. So maybe tomorrow I might actually even — for my run, I might actually go down the street to the end of the road for instance.

Well, that’s the other piece that you can look back on the Charles Duhigg piece. So he talks about the habit loop, and for him the habit loop has three parts to it. It’s the trigger, and the behavior, and then the reward. The reward, it has a rush of dopamine in the brain that makes your brain go “That’s good. You should do that again next time.” One of the interesting variations on this is if people are really interested in this, there’s a guy called Nir Eyal. So it’s an unusual name. His first name is Nir, N-I-R, second name is Eyal, E-Y-A-L, and his book is called Hooked. It’s actually about how do these evil geniuses in Silicon Valley create apps and gadgets and make us want to keep checking them, and he talks about the power of variable reward. That’s why we love to check out gadget when we hear that ping, the trigger from the email. We’re like oh, maybe somebody loves me, that’s the reward we’re looking for. When we don’t get it, we crave it a little bit more. But in terms of building your own habits, that whole idea of acknowledging success, finding the reward. So when you get up in the morning, you put on your shoes, you step out the door, what you do is just for 10 seconds hold your hands in the air like you’re crossing victory line and go, “Yes! I made it out the door,” and what you’re doing is you’re giving yourself that little shot of dopamine, you’re wiring your brain to go yeah, this is a rewarding behavior, I should do it again next time.

Lovely. So for the intrapreneur, the managers sitting in their organizations, wanting to — recognizing — listening to this and think, “Yeah. Okay I’ve got to get on top of this coaching. I’ve got to start becoming more effective, having a greater impact and enjoying myself without working quite so hard”. There are seven habits here, are there any — I’m going to try to boil it down even to — I mean, is there a lead domino here? Is this something that really moves the needle? Is it one skill that someone can, in 60 seconds sort of build some awareness of and get a couple of tactics to help embed that skill of the seven habits in the book?

Yeah. I mean the essence of the book of The Seven Questions, and then built around each of the seven questions are seven sort of smart ways master classes to ask a question well, so that once you’ve figured out what the right questions is, had it deliver in a way that lands at work, that gives you the best chance of success. My suggestion is rather than start with how to ask the question well, it’s pick a question. So had a — which question to pick, that’s the tricky one. It’s like — I want to say this book took me three or four years to write it, it almost killed me because I keep writing bad versions of it before I wrote a good version.


And I wrote one with like, I think 169 questions in it, one with five questions, one with nine, I mean you know that whole insight about innovation and building an innovation ecosystem is — part of it is about iterations and repetitive iterations because your first solution is not going to be the right solution. Honestly, this tested my innovation capacity which is like, oh my god, how many variations of this book I’m going to write before the right one shows up?

And in that process, I’m sorry to interrupt, but how did you sustain — I’m going to recover from my early comment, you’re very successful accomplished person.

Thank you. At last, at last!

And my opening question Michael, it’s going to be about being a Rhodes Scholar, which we won’t go into now, because you’ve got plenty of very successful Rhodes Scholars in the world today or historically, but my question I suppose is a bit more — how did you maintain the momentum and the resilience to keep going, because most people would say, “Okay. On my version four I’ve got nine questions. That’ it, that’s a wrap. Let’s go on to the next thing.” Take me through your mindset that enabled you to find the strength to continue if you like.

The first part was actually the fact that I was sending out versions of my book to my friends or to my agent or to my publisher, and they were telling me this is not a very good book. So this is only a matter of like, okay, I’m actually getting feedback from the world that I haven’t crack at yet, which is really annoying because with all my other books that I’ve written, pretty much the first version of it turned out to be a good enough version and people liked it. So I was kind of thinking I’d sort of sorted it out on how to write a book, it turns out.

Or maybe you needed to change your agent, maybe you’re thinking, right?

Exactly. Honestly, there were times where I was like, okay, do I want to keep trying to write this book because writing a book is a miserable experience. I mean you sweat through a first draft, and of course the first draft is terrible, so you sweat through a second draft and it’s not much better and then you go in a ninth draft and this stage is a little bit better but you hate yourself and you hate the book. So when people come to me and go, “Michael, I’m thinking of writing a book.” I tend to go, “Are you sure? Because it’s a hard way to get an idea or two out into the world.” It can be powerful. But honestly, most books are read by very few people, so is this the best way to do this? But two things kind of pulled me forward. The one is, I knew this book played a bigger goal. So talk about Leo Babauta and he got a book called Zen Habits, same name as his blog, and one of the things that Leo talks about in his book about how to build a habit is to — he calls it having a vow. In other words, who are you serving and how does this serve a bigger purpose? This habit, this thing you’re trying to build. In his context is I’m giving up smoking for my wife and my children. For me, I knew this book could be a key part of The Box of Crayons ecosystem. We sell training programs about practical coaching skill. I knew that if this was a good book and it took off, it would not only be a tool that we could use in the programs but be a marketing tool to attract people to ask about the programs. So we had a kind of strategic reason around it as well, but honestly, you can talk yourself out of that if need be. You can go out, there’s other ways for me to do that.

The truth that I just — it kept showing up. You need to write this book, and then I spent two years basically trying to pitch it to my previous New York publishing company and through an agent and the like, and I just couldn’t get traction with them. So part of what kept me going was trying to remember the core of what I really soar in this book because I really had a really kind of good vision for it even if I couldn’t execute on the vision. Then at a certain point, saying to my agent or my publisher, “Look, either you go with this vision or I go off on my own,” but I can’t be doing what we’re doing at the moment where I come back with an idea or an approach, and they go, “No, we love it. We don’t love it.” So not this, but something else. Go off and do something else. I just got kind of sucked in into this, kind of perpetual play of trying to figure out what they were thinking of even though they weren’t really thinking of anything. So I just said, “Okay, I’m off with this, I’m going to do this myself if you’re not going to do it.” They came back and said, “No,” and so I was like, “Okay. Well, I’m going to do it myself,” and I really committed to get in the best people around me, to help with that, so I hired Seth Godin, who I know a little bit. He introduced me to his editor and she turned out to be brilliant. We found an award-winning Canadian designer who turned out to be brilliant. He introduced me to a wonderful publishing team called Page Two Strategies, who are really fantastic in helping independents bring their book to market. So we just built this really strong team and that was lighting the fuse, that was the thing that made all the difference.

Lovely. Maybe we can follow up, because I’ve got a book and project on the way, but now is not the time to go into that I think. Well, I might get a bit too depressed about it. But just going back to the question Michael, around the manager trying to get on top of coaching. I think you said, which question, it starts with the landing on a question. I looked at some of them here, what’s on your mind, what was the real challenge? How should people think about that if they’re listening to that context?

Okay, if I had to get you to pick one question, I get you to pick the second question in the book, and we call that the best coaching question in the world. So you can guess now why I’m suggesting that, because it’s simple and it’s powerful, and it’s very strongly connected to the whole idea of innovation as well. The question is simply, and what else? AWE is the acronym. So literally an awesome question. And “and what else?” is powerful because it says, it recognizes that the first answer somebody gives you is never the only answer and it’s rarely best answer. The second reason anyone else is so powerful is it’s a self-management tool because it stops that part of you that twitching helpful, let me jump in and fix it and solve it and rescue the situation. It slows that part down, because if you’re asking “And what else?” If you’re staying curious, you’re not jumping in and fixing things. In other words “And what else?” helps you stay lazy.

It’s perfectly connected in line with this whole framework you got around innovation, which is innovation in part is about how do we generate better options? What are the alternative? What are our choices? “And what else” is the simplest way to generate new ideas and new options as well.

And as you say that, if I think of the senior execs I’ve worked with in the past, that’s not a question that you hear coming out of many execs at the top of their careers, because I guess for the reason that it’s an open question, it’s not a question that enables them to demonstrate how good they are, what they’ve done. But on the other hand, that’s exactly why it’s so powerful, I suspect.

Your insight is a really great one Mark, because — when people ask me, “Why is it so hard for people to ask a good question? Why don’t people coach more often?” And I’m like, “Well, part of it is just habit.” There’s been career being praised for, giving advice, having an answer, of coming up with a solution, part of it kind of connects to that reward part of the habit loop which is so what’s the reward in doing that? Here’s the insight, even though your advice isn’t nearly as good as you think it is, and even though you may well be solving the wrong problem just because you think the first problem is the real problem when it typically isn’t. Even though all of those are true, so you’re not being that effective, it kind of feels pretty good to give somebody advice because look, it establishes you as the smartest person in the room, it allows you to feel that you’re adding value, it means that you have the status, the high status in the conversation which makes you feel happier. It means that you’re in control of this conversation, and your alternative is to ask a question. When you ask a question, a couple of things are happening. First of all, as soon as you asked it, you’re now in a place of ambiguity. Was that a good question? Was that the right question? What answer are they going to come up with? What if they come up with some crazy asked answer that I don’t even know how to respond to? Where’s this conversation going? How will this end? What you’ve done is you have empowered the other person. You’ve given them control of the conversation. Of course, everybody nods their head and go, “Yeah, I’m really pro empowerment, to have empowerment, it’s a good thing.” But empowerment means giving up power so that the other person has it. Actually people are pretty reluctant to give up power, to give up control because that feels comfortable, it’s like a nice warm cloak around our shoulders.

So just relating this back to your piece around. You don’t hear this question very often. It’s not just a senior executive’s fault, it’s a system that built this up which is like, you feel good because you’re giving advice. They feel good because look, they’ve gone to somebody else and got advice, and who’s going to get fired for following the advice of their bosses’ boss? Nobody, right? So it’s like everyone is colluding to pretend that this works. The challenges, it doesn’t always work. It works far less than people might think.

Yeah, it’s essentially is an institutional habit versus a personal habit, isn’t it?

Yeah. Exactly right.

Okay. So changing gears a little bit. As you said early on, you work for a couple of — I think you work for What If and another consulting firm and then founded Box of Crayons. So in the 15, 16 years of doing this kind of work, are you seeing anything around how leaders lead to create cultures of innovation in your client-based? I just wonder, is there a before and after story here based on either the impact that you and your team have had or based on innovation and leadership styles evolving to take account of the new commercial realities of doing business today?

When I started working with What If, so that was 12 years ago, innovation was really not much of a buzzword at the time. I remember going into clients and we kind of had to explain what innovation was. It was really kind of — what do they call it, the Precambrian explosion of innovation that’s happened, instead now it’s kind of everybody, every organization goes how innovation that’s part of our DNA, we need to make it part of the way that we work. It is hard to inculcate an innovation culture because for me I draw on a guy called Ed Schein S-C-H-E-I-N, who’s really for me the guy who thinks usefully about corporate cultures. The summary of his model would be there are three levels to incorporate culture. There’s the artifacts, that’s the stuff you look around and see everything from the color of the walls to the way people dressed. They’re all chart to the type of titles people have to. All that sort of stuff. Anything that you kind of see or point at, that’s the artifacts. Then there the espoused values, it’s what people talk about as what matters in this company, in this organization. Then there are at the kind of deepest level, the unspoken assumptions. That’s kind of the habits of the company. That’s the way that we operate around here.

When you have all three of those levels aligned, you have a very powerful culture. More typically though, you have the first two that coalesce around something, and then you have the deeper habits that are actually not quite aligned with that. So you know, the classic is, we’re a people first company. Look, we’ve got pictures of employee of the month on the wall and CEO stands up and she talks about we’re an employee first company, but the decisions are basically made around how do we make money around here. So classic innovation. It’s like, “No, we love innovation. Innovation is in our lifeblood. Look, we have orange walls and bean bags. That’s how innovative we are.” But then you go and you sit in a meeting and the meeting is running the standard way and there’s no rewards for breaking the rules, and you don’t celebrate failure and blah blah blah. All the things that what behaviors looked like for a culture that has innovation built into it. That’s not a strong innovation culture. So I think, the seduction always is to go with the first two levels and the hard work is to actually think about, “How do we change the way we behave around here?” so that we have that foundation, that habitual way of thinking and behaving in an innovative way. That’s tricky and it’s as hard now as it was 20 years ago.

Yup. You touched on meetings which are — I think meetings are such a fascinating lever to pull if you want to change an organization’s culture because, A, most people spend most of their lives in meetings and, B, most of them are so terribly organized and run and the experience is so unpleasant. Again, let’s go back this sort of the manager of a team trying to make his — recognizing that his team isn’t necessarily creative enough or innovative enough, any tips on how could he or she run a meeting that fosters more engagement? Which brings to life some of the tools, some of the questions. What would good look like for that individual?

Let me offer up some just generic answers because obviously, it depends on the person, on the team, on the culture. Are they remote? Are they in the same room? All that sort of stuff. But if I was looking to kind of disrupt to have the meetings happen at the moment, the first thing I do is going, “Let’s have the amount of time we have for this meeting.” Any meeting expands to fill the time allotted to it. It’s like okay, if you only got half an hour instead of an hour, notice that creates a certain degree of urgency and it creates hopefully essential way to be focused.

The second thing I’d be doing is going — call anybody who doesn’t need to be there because meetings tend to be bloated with a whole a bunch of people who are like, “I don’t know why I’m here. There’s nothing much of value for me here. I’m not contributing, I’m not learning, I’m kind of doing my email under the table while the meeting is going on.” So it’s like cut the people who don’t need to be there.

Then thirdly, I might think about how do you frame the agenda around the question? So rather than going — we’re talking about the marketing campaign, and there’s a kind of now, long report about all the stuff that’s happened, boring, and there’s a thousand better ways to share information than that. What I think every agenda item should have is what’s the question we’re seeking to answer here? If there’s another question to answer, it shouldn’t be on the agenda. Once you have a question to answer, you then get to play around with while it’s just the right challenge, that connects with one of the questions in the book, what’s the real challenge here for you? You can generate options and what else, and what else. You can ask them kind of really challenging questions on what do we want, what do you want here. You kind of find the purpose, the vision behind that. You can use any number of the questions from the book that kind of drive a deeper conversation but the starting point is to go “What’s the question we’re looking to tackle here in this meeting?”

Lovely. That wasn’t a leading question but as you say that, I can see the power of this approach in all sorts of interactions with individuals and with groups.


Yeah, fascinating. Fascinating. Michael, you referred earlier on to a number of resources you used in creating the book. Any resources that you’ve come across that actually dig into this subject of meetings in more detail that really kind of unlocks some of the challenges that so many people face in the corporate world at the moment?

Yeah. There’s a book out there. So about five years ago, I published a book in partnership with Seth Godin. Seth had a year of publishing books. He created his own publishing house and he set it up in partnership with Amazon so these books were only published through Amazon. I put out a book called End Malaria, it was a philanthropic project. So we raised about $400,000 for Malaria No More through this kind of anthology of SH from various thought leaders like David Allen and other people like that.

The proceeds of your book go to End Malaria as well, The Process Coaching Habit, right?

No. The proceeds of that go to me. We do make a donation to Nature Conservancy of Canada but with the End Malaria, all of the money went to Malaria No More. Now, at the same year, Seth put out a book by a guy called Al, and his surname starts with P, but it’s quite a complicated surname and I can’t remember it. I think the book is something called Read This Before Your Next Meeting.

I think I know the book. Yeah. I’ll dig it out because I think I’ve got a copy of it.

Yeah, it’s like Al Pittampalli. Something like that. I just don’t want to kind of get Al’s name too wrong. The book is I think called Read This Before Your Next Meeting. I think there’s a lot in there that is just good practical sense to go, how do we make these meetings much stronger than they currently are.

Yeah, super. Super. So beginning to wrap up here because this has been very very helpful. Firstly, I sent some questions through to you beforehand Michael. First one, what have you changed your mind about recently?

That doing this podcast with you is a good idea. I’d definitely check — Sorry, that would be a facetious answer. So I sat with that question for a while. I can’t think of anything where I’d radically changed my mind about something. Maybe that’s just as a reflection that I’m not a man of strong opinions, or maybe I’m kidding myself but one of the things that I’m constantly trying to change my mind about, so it’s an ongoing process, is I’m far less important than I think I am. That resonates in terms of how I show up in my own company and the role I play my own company, and how much I trust other people and how much I delegate and hand over to other people. I also shows up in kind of holding the work I do, I suppose really important but also likely as well. I mean in a hundred years time, the very few people who’ve heard of me now will all be dead. Nobody will remember my name. My work will most likely be completely unknown to anybody. So rather than that depressing me, it’s actually a thought of going, so that means you can do anything you want because nobody can remember it anyway, so why not be courageous and bold, and really go for something that you think this is the best version of myself that I can put out there through my work.

Interesting. I was going to follow up with the question, so what is the real challenge? But I think perhaps we don’t have time for that, right?

Right. But I know where you’re going with that. Yeah.

See? I’ve read the book. So next question, what do you do to remain creative and innovative?

Well, three things came to mind. First of all is I read a lot. I read broadly. I read in different disciplines. I’m reading Kevin Kelly’s book at the moment called The Inevitable.

The Inevitable. Yeah, he was on our own show a few weeks ago. He’s an amazing guy.

He is an amazing guy and his book is mind-blowing. I love that. I read Science. I read business. I read a lot of fictions. So just reading broadly I think can be really powerful. Secondly, is I use pen and paper quite a bit. So there’s only about the freedom of pen and paper about drawing options, drawing possibilities. I don’t know if you know, do you know Dan Roam? Have you come across him?

Yes I do. Yeah The Back Of The Napkin.

Exactly, and he’s got a brand new book out now or the next little while. He’d be another great guest for this podcast actually because I do think drawing and sketching and playing around with stuff really helps the creativity piece. Then the third piece is just coming back to that “and what else” question, which is I asked myself that question. Okay good, and what else could I do here? And that just forces me to generate new ideas and new possibilities.

Yup. So a bonus question, it’s not on the schedule, but I mean, you are having an impact with your work, that’s clear. You’ve done a great work for Malaria as well, and what else from Michael? I mean what are your plans beyond what you’re doing at the moment?

As I think about what we have done at Box of Crayons, from my very first book called Get Unstuck and Get Going, and The Coaching Habit, and the programs we do, a big part of what we appear to be committed to is that kind of side disrupting the expectation of what coaching is, making it accessible, the way of working for all sorts of people. So one of the ways — At the moment we do that through our programs and doing it through our books, but we’re now looking at other ways to reach out, to kind of connect with people, to make coaching feel like an everyday accessible practice that they could actually start doing, rather than keeping it in the hands of just professional coaches or just people who got that coach label. So we’re still playing around with what that could actually look like, but that’s kind of the destination that we’re looking for. Then the other piece connected with that in some ways is we mostly serve corporations and organizations at the moment, but we’re trying to figure out how to bring some of these tools into the world of education in a way they can best serve principals and superintendents and teachers and students as well

Lovely. Very relevant. Then the final question which I did send you in advance, to what you attribute your success in life? Are there any specific skills or habits or mindsets you’ve mastered, do you think that you’ve made your significant impact?

I put it down almost entirely to my extreme good looks.

And wit and charisma.

I mean, when you have a face like mine, it’s almost impossible not to succeed. So where will I put it down to. I’d say this, three things. One is a certain degree of not taking myself too seriously because every — calm down, doing the best I can, but so, a sense of humor and maybe a sense of humility around some of this. Part of it is around resilience. Like our willingness to show up. For instance, I’m a Rhodes Scholar as you mentioned, but not many people know that I actually applied to be a Rhodes Scholar two years before I actually was awarded that. I got roundly rejected, I didn’t even make the first round interviews which I was told everybody gets the first interview and then I didn’t get the first interview. But rather than kind of taking that as a no, I took it as a, okay so how do I — is it working back on that horse — likewise writing the book, had you keep going if you think it’s important? So I think resilience, a sense of humor, and I think part of it is around our willingness to try and think about what is the impact I want to have in this world? So it’s not enough just to go through the motions. I’m looking to have the best impact I possibly can in the very small time around on this planet. So I try and be ambitious about the work I’m trying to do.

Yep, and it comes through because I think, as I said earlier on, I mean of one level the book is about coaching, but it’s about far more than that. It’s about having a significant impact through others, in service of others.

Yeah. I love you said that. Thank you.

Fantastic. So where can people get in touch with you Michael?

I’m going to give two potential sources on the web. If you’re interested in more about the book, then simply, and even if you’re not interested in the book but you just want kind of check for free videos and downloads and stuff, there’s a lot there, you can download the first chapter or two. If you’re interested in the program, then, depending on the where you are in the world, is I know the place to go. If you’re looking to connect with me personally in social media, the place I hang out most often is LinkedIn. So I’m the only Michael Bungay Stanier, not only in the universe, but also on LinkedIn. So you can find me there.

We’ll put all that in the show notes, and if there’s any handout so that we can put in there as well, we’ll put that up. It’s been a really great pleasure to have on the show Michael. I really do appreciate it, and thank you very much for your time and for putting me on the spot on a couple of times. In case you know what it is. I’m sure our audience have enjoyed it as much as I did. We’ll put the information out there once we’re up with the show in terms of we’ve got it at launch date, but many thanks for your time.

Mark, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Okay, bye.


Michael Bungay Stanier, Founder of Box of Crayons, teaches the principles of how to do less hard work and more good work to the everyday stressed out manager.

Michael opens a new door for managers who are struggling to get everything done. Often times, managers do not want to become coaches, but understanding basic coaching methods can help them to become more effective leaders. Habits also play a strong role in a leader’s ability to adapt to these new principles and succeed.

“The three core principles we talked about when we teach coaching are: be lazy, be curious, be often.” – Michael Bungay Stanier

  • [02:50] – What is Michael’s company, Box of Crayons, about?
  • [04:10] – How do you make coaching practical for people?
  • [04:55] – Busy managers often say they don’t have the time to coach people.
  • [06:00] – Coaching is slightly weird. Managers don’t want to be a coach, they just want to do their job well.
  • [09:10] – Slow down the rush to give advice to others. Often times you’re solving the wrong problem!
  • [10:40] – Instead of Michael training to teach the benefits of coaching to busy managers, he shows them how to work less hard for more impact.
  • [13:00] – There’s terrible advice out there on how to change your habits.
  • [14:35] – Michael came up with a 3-part habit formula.
  • [18:15] – High achievers aren’t exactly wired to congratulate themselves.
  • [21:40] – Your first solution isn’t always going to be the right solution, which is why you need iterations.
  • [22:50] – How did Michael find the strength to finish his book despite so many revisions, iterations and edits?
  • [27:10] – How should managers think about their situation and what’s keeping them stuck?
  • [29:15] – Why is it so hard for people to ask a good question?
  • [32:05] – How has leadership styles evolved over the years, especially when it comes to creating an innovative culture?
  • [35:55] – How can managers foster more engagement from their team?
  • [40:15] – What has Michael changed his mind about recently?
  • [41:55] – What does Michael do to remain creative?
  • [43:15] – What’s next for Michael?
  • [44:45] – What does Michael attribute his success to in life?


Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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