30 days without added sugar

“Please have some sugar!”  

That was the plea from my wife and daughter when I was midway through my #NoSugarChallenge. They noted I was <ahem> more irritable and unpleasant than usual. Whether that was a lack of sugar or just my personality, we’ll never know.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

What and why

I was inspired by my older son to try this challenge. We debated rules: Does maple syrup count? Agave? What about dextrose? Pretty quickly we settled on avoiding anything that included white or brown sugar, corn syrup or similar derivatives, or artificial sweeteners. We agreed that eating an apple, for example, or granola with real maple syrup, was acceptable. 

For most of my life, my approach to food was simple: if I liked it, I ate it. Over the last ten years, though, I have become more mindful of what I eat. My view of sugar in particular has changed as I saw my mother die of diabetes, and learned how one of every three people in the US will develop this preventable disease

I had tried similar challenges related to meat and alcohol. Now it was time to try a sugar challenge.

The immediate benefits

Starting from the first day, I became increasingly aware of sugar in my diet. I started reading more labels, and was often surprised at how sugar had insinuated itself into so many things. 

For the most part, it turns out, I don’t eat much added sugar. I like baking and enjoy ice cream, but for these 30 days I could easily avoid them. Dark chocolate, though, was a different matter. I have a habit of having a few pieces after dinner, and I really wanted that chocolate. To deal with my craving, I’m sure I drank more wine and had more second helpings than usual.

I also failed twice while I was on a business trip. Once was on purpose. At a nice restaurant with a friend who was looking forward to sharing dessert, I made a conscious decision to participate. The other time was an impulse, when some lovely-looking rice pudding was served for free after an Indian meal. I did not resist.

At the end of the challenge, I opened some chocolate I had purchased specifically for the occasion. I looked at, smelled it, and savored it. Just a few pieces. It was heavenly.

The absolute best part

The biggest benefit actually didn’t have anything to do with sugar, but with the practice itself: I became more confident, with a reinforced sense of self-control. I first experienced this when I became a vegetarian:

“When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted.”

That feeling has increased with each challenge and with new habits like writing, meditation, and playing piano. For most of my life, my fear of big changes was matched only by self-criticism for my lack of discipline. Now, in mid-life, small experiments with my habits have changed my life.

The Stoic philosophers, along with modern psychologists, say that self-control is something to be developed, and that doing so makes for a happier life. I think they’re right.

The Wine Test

This test comes from the excellent book, Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics, by Richard Thaler. He’s an economist who observed that human beings are much messier than the rational, optimizing agents in economics textbooks. As an example of this, he surveyed subscribers to a newsletter on wine auction pricing, called Liquid Assets, and asked them this question:

Suppose you bought a case of good Bordeaux in the futures market for $20 a bottle. The wine now sells at auction for about $75. You have decided to drink a bottle. Which of the following best captures your feeling of the cost to you of drinking the bottle?
a) $0. I already paid for it.
b) $20, what I paid for it.
c) $20 plus interest.
d) $75, what I could get if I sold the bottle.
e) -$55. I get to drink a bottle that is worth $75 that I only paid $20 for so I save money by drinking this bottle.

Take a moment now and choose what you feel the cost would be. (There’s no one correct answer, and I’ll provide how people in the survey responded below.)

The results

You may have already come across behavioral economics in some other excellent books such as Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and Nudge co-authored by Thaler. They all show how people make decisions that can be decidedly against their best interests. 

The Wine Test is more than a party trick. Though the correct answer according to economists would be “d) $75, what I could get if I sold the bottle,” only 20% of respondents made that choice. More than half of the people considered drinking the bottle to be free (30%) or even result in a profit (25%). The rest just considered the original price (18%) or included interest (7%).

Why are our choices so different from what economists would predict? And why are we so different from each other?

$100 bills on the sidewalk

The problem is that we’re not purely rational agents who optimize outcomes. Included in a long list of deviations is that we tend to over-react to losses, to overweight near-term versus long-term benefits, and to base decisions based on how they’re worded or “framed.” 

A striking example of this is how we save for retirement. In a paper titled, “$100 Bills on the Sidewalk: Suboptimal Investment in 401(k) Plans,” researchers showed how people didn’t take advantage of employer-matched funds (literally free money) and consistently paid little attention to contribution rates and how their retirement money would be invested.

Providing education about investments didn’t change much, but something else did: intelligent defaults. Employers automatically enrolled employees in the program and selected contribution rates and investments based on their profile. Employees still had full control to change things, but it was opt-out instead of opt-in.

“Under the opt-in approach, participation rates were 20% after 3 months of employment, and gradually increased to 65% after 36 months. But when automatic enrollment was adopted, enrollment of new employees jumped to 90% immediately and increased to more than 98% within 36 months.”

With a simple change, and without diminishing employee autonomy, behavioral economists were able to improve the retirement prospects of thousands of people.

Changes in your work and life

Whether it’s investing in wine, retirement, or in your own career and personal development, it’s clear we don’t always do what’s best for us. But as Thaler noted, 

“Once you understand a behavioral problem, you can sometimes invent a behavioral solution to it…My mantra is if you want to help people accomplish some goal, make it easy.”

How did you do on The Wine Test? How will you do on making other, more important, decisions?

The more we know about why people do what they do, the better we can design things to make work and life better.

“Don’t expect applause”

I had been waiting for several months for the small box to arrive. Inside was a tiny cardboard stand and a set of 59 cards, a short slogan written on each one. The slogans are from the Lojong teachings, a mind training practice developed over a thousand years ago. They're designed as “a set of antidotes to undesired mental habits that cause suffering.”

I selected the first card and put it on the display. It read: “Don’t expect applause.”

I learned about the slogans from Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are, which is about developing compassion, including self-compassion. 

“If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them. True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

Later in the day, I thought about the card when I did something around the house and was irritated that my wife didn’t say anything. I thought about the card again when I went to the gym and wanted to be noticed, and when I got good news and was eager to share it in anticipation of receiving praise. It all seemed so childish, and I was embarrassed at having such a deeply-ingrained habit. (Thankfully, I remembered that developing self-compassion is also part of the practice.)

The problem isn’t with positive feedback or encouragement, it’s with expectations, and the card helped me pay attention to my intentions. I should do something because it’s right or nice, not because I hope for something in return.

“It’s good to express our gratitude to others. It’s good to express our appreciation of others. But if we do that with the motivation of wanting them to like us, we can remember this slogan. We can thank others, but we should give up all hope of getting thanked back. Simply keep the door open without expectations.”

"Simply keep the door open." With my first card, I clearly understood that expecting something in return is one of the “mental habits that cause suffering.” I also experienced that it takes practice to train your mind and change the habit, to gradually learn how to be happy.

I wonder what the next card will bring. 

If you care about diversity at work

When I worked in a big company, some of the best communities on our social intranet were related to diversity. The people leading them cared deeply about the different topics. Community members were creative and generous, and they brought a welcome sense of shared humanity to our workplace. It was inspiring.

Yet as good as they were, they were missing something.

Two kinds of extraordinary contributions

The focus of these communities tended to be on raising awareness. With their small budgets, they would host events with inspiring speakers followed by wine and networking. It might be a female executive talking about careers and offering advice, or an external speaker talking about their organization and how it makes a difference. A lot of work went into planning these events, and people liked them.

Campaigns were also popular. One of the most successful ones I remember was for Spirit Day in which people wear purple in support of the LGBTQ community. When that day came, I remember looking on our social network and seeing my feed awash in purple. There were photos from offices all over the world, people wearing purple dresses, shirts, ties, scarves, socks. People taking selfies and people formed in large groups, sharing heartfelt comments expressing their support and commitment. I remember how proud I felt that day, proud of my company and of the people in it.

When the music stops

Events and campaigns can be fun and inspiring. But when they end, participants are typically unsure of what to do next except wait for another event. Last week, I talked with people from universities across the U.S. about trying something different. It was a webinar for a Diversity & Inclusion group.

The group is pursuing a wide range of projects, and they sent me a list of them. One from an educator in Missouri jumped out at me.

“Using the Working Out Loud framework by John Stepper to develop improved skills in improving civil discourse in every day life of Extension educators working in their communities.”

Not only was she interested in being more effective herself, she was trying to change how people relate to each other and help them be more effective too. 

Something to try at your next event

At the end of the call with the universities, people signed up to join Working Out Loud Circles. The first step was to experience the benefits themselves, so they could see how best to apply it to their particular community. The next step would be to help their community form their own Circles.

You could do the same thing at your own event in your own company. If you’re in a diversity community, you’ve already discovered a goal you care about. Your relationship list would include people running other programs, potential partners, and those you admire who are making a difference. By Working Out Loud, you would build relationships with them, and get exposed to new ideas, approaches, and collaboration opportunities that would help you make more of a difference.

What you can also do is help your constituents develop those same skills, and apply them towards their own goals. If the systems and polices don’t give people the visibility and access they deserve, you can help them change the odds through the relationships they'll build.

Spreading Working Out Loud Circles is one way to empower yourself and the people you serve. 

“Perhaps if I liked my job more…”

I’ve been thinking about what she wrote since I got her message a few weeks ago. She had stumbled across an old blog post of mine from five years ago about "career insurance."

She had been working at a job she never really loved for a long time, and a recent lay-off left her wanting something more from work, something she could “feel at least a little passionate about.” She was interested in Working Out Loud, but some of the exercises seemed pointless to her given the state of her career. “Perhaps if I liked my job,” she wrote, “I would be more interested in becoming visible.”

I wanted to tell her that even in a job you don’t like, you have more control than you might imagine. Not only can you craft your tasks, relationships, and perceptions at work, but you can use your existing job as a platform for building new skills. She shouldn’t wait till she found a job she loved to Work Out Loud, she should Work Out Loud to find a job she loves.

In a post called, “If you want to discover something wonderful, try this” I described it as “purposeful discovery.”

“One of the major problems with identifying your true calling is that you’re aware of only a tiny fraction of the possibilities, and picking solely from what you already know is grossly limiting...
Fortunately, I found a much better way to guide your decision making that will lead you to more rewarding possibilities. That better way is purposeful discovery, a form of goal-oriented exploration. You start by choosing a goal you care about and then using the different elements of working out loud to build a network of relationships, get feedback, and learn about ways to improve and about other possibilities. The goal orients your activities, and as you get feedback and learn, you adapt your goal accordingly”

I encouraged her to join a Working Out Loud Circle with people from different locations and companies. The peer support would help her take a step in a way that felt safe and confidential. The contributions she would make would help her refine her sense of what she liked and didn’t like. Her growing network of deepening relationships would give her access to new ideas and opportunities.

I know it's hard to take a step when you're not feeling good about what your work, but I hope she does. If you wait for your job to be interesting before you take control of your career, you may wait for a very long time.

The enemy within

It all seemed terribly important at the time. There were factions and disputes, often within the same division or sub-division, at every company I worked in.

When I was in the IT department, for example, the enemy was the infrastructure group. When I was supporting a banking business, the Fixed Income executive threatened to have me fired if I shared anything with the Equities group. Usually, we referred to the enemy by their acronym. I still remember when GIS CM was at odds with GIS CB. 

It’s laughable now, but only from a distance. Up close, the threats - to our group’s status and to my own compensation - seemed very real.  I used to think that internecine warfare was an unavoidable consequence of working inside organizations, or perhaps a problem of how we designed them. Now I see it’s much deeper than that.

When incentives & organization are to blame

A disturbing experiment in 1954 showed how easily people can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other. It was called the Robber’s Cave experiment, and it involved 22 eleven-year-old boys in a three-week summer camp.

“The boys were broken up into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. In the first week, the boys in each group bonded by hiking, swimming, cooking and eating together. In the second week, the researchers tried to induce conflict between the groups by holding several competitions. The winning group would get a trophy. 
Over the course of the week, the competition became intense. A loss in a game of baseball resulted in name-calling. A loss in a grueling 48-minute tug-of-war led to the “enemy” camp being raided. After the final competition, at the awarding of the trophy, a fistfight broke out and adults had to step in.”

When management is to blame

The famous Milgram experiments in 1961 showed how quickly we cede our empathy and compassion in the face of authority.

“How many people would continue all the way to the level marked “Danger: Extreme Shock” even in the face of obvious distress they were causing? Milgram polled his colleagues and “psychiatrists predicted that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board. The actual answer was 600 times that…
‘What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience.’”

When we run out of excuses

For sure, the culture of a place can make bad behavior more or less likely, but that doesn’t absolve the individual from the choices they make. Every email, every meeting, and every conversation in the hallway presents a choice. Pay attention to what you and your colleagues say about other people when they're not around. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?

I was as quick as anyone to label someone, to criticize them, to assign them motives and agendas when in truth I had little actual understanding. How could I? I never asked, never wanted to know, and it was simpler that way. How limiting that was. 

Five years ago, before I was thinking about Working Out Loud, I started looking for ways to mitigate bad behavior at work, and I was thinking about how technology would help people relationships. 

“Social tools and practices make it easier than ever to fix this. To connect people across organizations. To build relationships based on more than acronyms. To create purposeful social networks focused on company goals instead of on managers in the hierarchy.”

Since then, I’ve learned technology is only one possible part of the solution. I’ve learned that, although new tools may make it easier to change how people relate to each other, and certain kinds of managers and cultures can help, we don’t have to wait for these things. 

Defeating the enemy within requires that we see each other as human beings connected by common interests, concerns, and struggles. That’s a mindset and a set of skills and habits that anyone can develop. It just takes practice. 

“The simplest & easiest form of prototyping is a conversation”

That’s a quote from Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, an excellent book that applies design thinking to life decisions, particularly career choices. Yet the quote could actually apply to any step you want to take.

A process for problem-solving

The book is based on a course the authors taught at Stanford University. Bill Burnett was the head of the Stanford Program in Design, and Dave Evans was teaching at UC Berkeley, including a course called “How to Find Your Vocation.” They combined their interests and experience to use design thinking - “a method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions” - to help students design their life after university.

Throughout the book, they advocate the use of prototypes.

“Prototypes should be designed to ask a question and get some data about something you’re interested in. Good prototypes isolate one aspect of a problem and design an experience that allows you to “try out” some version of a potentially interesting future.” 

As an example of what happens when you don’t prototype, they told the story of Elise. 

Don’t do this with your life

After a long career in Human Resources, Elise was ready for something different, and she knew exactly what it would be: an Italian deli and cafe that served “wonderful coffee and authentic Tuscan food.” She had visited Tuscany and loved the food and cafes there, and she dreamed of creating something just like it.

“She had saved enough to get started, collected all the recipes she needed, researched the best place near her home to locate such a business, and did it. She rented a place, totally renovated it, stocked it with the best products, and opened to great fanfare. It was an immense amount of work, and it was a roaring success. Everyone loved it. She was busier than ever. And in no time she was miserable.”

She liked the idea of an Italian deli and cafe, but didn’t know what she didn’t know. She simply never imagined the problems hiring staff, managing inventory, and maintenance of the store. 

Not what, but who!

To help people like Elise avoid making costly mistakes, the authors advocate prototyping instead, trying small experiments that will give you knowledge about your idea before you spend a lot of time and money fully implementing it. “The simplest and easiest form of prototyping,” they wrote, “is a conversation.” They called those conversations “Life Design Interviews.”

“You want to talk to someone who is either doing and living what you’re contemplating, or has real experience and expertise in an area about which you have questions.”

I was struck how this advice relates directly to what people practice in Working Out Loud Circles. In a Circle, people ask themselves three questions:

  1. What am I trying to do?
  2. Who is related to that goal?
  3. How can I contribute to them to deepen the relationship?

I was reading Designing Your Life in Germany, while working with an engineering firm there. We have adapted Circles to help employees develop a prototyping mindset. The company wants more ideas and more efforts to implement them. I’m trying to help them have more conversations and build deeper relationships.

Whether your idea is for a new product, a new process, or a new Italian deli, sometimes the best question isn’t what to do, it’s whom to talk to about it. When you offer your genuine attention and vulnerability in exchange for information, the things you learn can change your idea - and your life.

This group of people from 8 German companies has bold ambitions, and the conversations help them be more effective. (On a bus, no less! Click on the image for the full story.)

This group of people from 8 German companies has bold ambitions, and the conversations help them be more effective. (On a bus, no less! Click on the image for the full story.)

8 companies in Germany

There have been meet-ups before, and even a company conference, but this was different. This was eight companies coming together to advance the practice of Working Out Loud. 

Daimler was our host, thanks to Lukas Fütterer and Melanie Raßloff from their Digital Life Team. They published images and updates from the event:

"With the spring arriving in Stuttgart, 15 practitioners from Audi, BMW, Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Telekom and Siemens discussed the status & co-create on the future of Working Out Loud in big corporations together with John Stepper #WOL #DigitalLife"

In front of Daimler's Digital Life bus. (First time "Working Out Loud" is on the side of a bus!)

“Co-create the future of Working Out Loud” is what really made this meeting extraordinary. Each company is already spreading WOL Circles in some way. This meeting was about how to do it better and faster. It was about what we need to improve and create, and how we will work together to do it. By the end of the day we had specific initiatives with different practitioners teaming up to drive them. Bernd Zimmermann, an HR executive and innovator at Siemens, described it in his blog post as “making the New Work work.”

In the TEDx talk last year I said, “If Working Out Loud does become a movement, it will be because of the people in the community.” Today was evidence of that. Combined, these eight companies co-creating the future have over 1.7 million employees. Together, we took another step towards making a difference. 

 

The Dinner Table University

“Felice, what did you learn today?”

“Felice” (fell-EE-chay) is Felice Leonardo "Leo" Buscaglia, a professor at the University of Southern California whose father instilled in him a sense of curiosity and a habit for learning that lasted his entire life. Dr. Buscaglia went on to write books about love and give talks that were broadcast on public television in the 1980s. That’s where I first heard him tell the story of the dinner table university he experienced as a child, and it stuck with me since. 

Leo grew up in a large Italian immigrant family. They were poor, but they were surrounded by people and love, by food and opera. His father, who was taken from school at an early age to work in a factory, was determined that none of his children would be denied an education. 

“Papa believed that the greatest sin was to go to bed at night as ignorant as when we awakened. To ensure that none of his children ever fell into the trap of complacency, Papa insisted that we learn at least one new thing each day. And dinner time seemed the perfect forum for sharing what we had learned that day. Naturally, as children, we thought this was crazy.”

Not having an answer wasn’t an option. So before dinner, the children would scramble to come up with something they could offer. Out of desperation, they might frantically turn to the encyclopedia to find some fact they could use. "The population of Nepal is…"

“Silence. It always amazed me and reinforced my belief that Papa was a little crazy that nothing I ever said was too trivial for him. First, he'd think about what was said as if the salvation of the world depended upon it. "The population of Nepal. Hmmm. Well." He would then look down the table at Mama, who would be ritualistically fixing her favorite fruit in a bit of leftover wine. "Mama, did you know that?” Mama's responses always lightened the otherwise reverential atmosphere. "Nepal?" she'd say. "Not only don't I know the population of Nepal, I don't know where in God's world it is!" Of course, this only played into Papa's hands.
"Felice," he'd say. "Get the atlas so we can show Mama where Nepal is." And the whole family went on a search for Nepal.”

Each child’s contribution was carefully examined and considered no matter how trivial it was. It wasn’t so much the specific bit of knowledge that was important, but the sharing of that knowledge.

“Without being aware of it, our family was growing together, sharing experiences and participating in one another's education. And by looking at us, listening to us, respecting our input, affirming our value, giving us a sense of dignity, Papa was unquestionably our most influential teacher.
‘How long we live is limited,’ he said, "but how much we learn is not. What we learn is what we are." Papa's technique has served me well all my life.” 

Listening to Leo Buscaglia tell the story himself is a special treat. (You can find a longer version in Papa, My Father, and it’s condensed nicely here.) Clicking on the video below will take you directly to it at 45m06s. Watch the whole video if you can, and you’ll get a sense of someone whose passion for life, love, and learning inspired many thousands of people, including me.

Note: I liked this story so much I included it as an exercise in Week 9 of the WOL Circle Guides. It’s meant to help people experience their own Dinner Table University, to practice sharing their learning as a contribution.

 

 

If you want more people to use the intranet at work

For me, it started in 2007. After almost 15 years of working on trading floors, I was close to losing my job and was looking for some other way to add value and stay employed. 

That’s when I started thinking about the intranet.

A list of failed experiments

I was using Gmail and Google Apps at the time, and I thought Why can’t we have something like this at work? So I began researching different options, and that led to the first of many pilots.

2008 - Google at work: We were going to use Gmail and iGoogle (do you remember that?) We conducted a pilot but cancelled it due to inability to pass legal & compliance restrictions.

2009 - Yammer: A business division started to use it first and it began to go viral till Compliance blocked access to it.

2009 - Facebook: We investigated secure integration via software from an Israeli start-up, but never made it to a pilot.

2010 - The Wire: We hosted our own micro-blogging service to avoid compliance issues. There was significant early adoption by IT but it was seen as marginal by most people.

2011 - Jive: We managed to get enough money for 12,000 licenses, and we blew through that within 6 months. Forced to either shut it down or buy more licenses, we secured an enterprise license for several years, giving us time to try and drive adoption.

Do you see a pattern? We were so focused on technology, on trying tool after tool, that we missed the parts about helping people and solving problems.

“This will change everything”

We knew that Jive, a fully-functional enterprise social network, could make a dramatic difference in how people worked. But by 2011, our experiments had taught us that “hoping for viral” wasn’t a good strategy. So our small team launched, evangelized, trained, workshopped, ambassadored, communitied, and tried every other good practice we could find or think of.

It still wasn’t enough. Or rather, change came very slowly. Over the next four years, the number of active users inched upwards, eventually topping 90,000 people, but we faced existential challenges each year: sponsors leaving, budget cuts, re-organizations, IT threatening to change platforms. 

By the time I left the company, most of what we thought of as “the intranet” had moved to the enterprise social network, and more people used it in ways that were open and collaborative. What we were still looking for was how to accelerate these kinds of changes. 

The biggest lesson

In hindsight, the biggest lesson I learned was that while there are many “barriers to adoption” for new technology at work, the biggest one is the set of deeply-ingrained habits people have. Most employees are already busy, distracted, and potentially disengaged. Even if the new intranet is better for them, they won’t pay much attention to it. 

In an article titled, “What We Know About Making Enterprise Social Networks Successful Today,” Dion Hinchcliffe (noted author and digital strategist) summed it up nicely:

“ESNs are about people + digital technology: Focus in that order” 

He provided a wide range of excellent advice, including how he would help people take advantage of the new tools:

“Of all the digital skills that workers should be developing now, perhaps the one that most naturally is an onramp to most of the others and leads to both positive outcomes and compelling emergent results is the act of working out loud (WOL) in digital channels. 
…the push for organizations to create WOL circles to build skills around the technique is probably the best place to start.” 

What I would do now

“Onramp” is a good metaphor. People won’t start using new digital tools because of IT training or because someone told them to. But they will use them if, as in a WOL Circle, they feel it’s related to a goal they care about, that it gives them more control over their career and access to opportunities. 

Bosch is one of the leading companies spreading Circles, and Katharina Krentz talked about it this week at a Digital Business conference in Germany, In her talk, “Working Out Loud as a Change Method,” she shared some of their survey results:

88 % say: “I use Bosch Connect more efficiently now”
97 % say: “The program increases digital capabilities and supports cultural change”

Those numbers are far better than anything else I tried when I ran the intranet. To scale these kinds of changes even further, I would integrate Circles into every existing process or program where people benefit from building better relationships at work.

In short, I’d try to help people experience a better way of working wherever they happen to be, and for long enough that “the new way” becomes a new habit.

Poetry Out Loud

When I first saw the phrase “Poetry Out Loud,” I didn’t pay much attention. After all, you can live, love, write, dance, exercise, and even work out loud

But one day I was working in the fabulous Poets House (“a national poetry library and literary center”), and I noticed some poems on display. They were by children, and the first one I read was by Allan, a fourth-order at PS1. 

Lady
If I leave New York, 
I’ll bring Lady Liberty
Cameras clicking,
Children yelling
I’ll bring it in my suitcase, remembrance.

I enjoyed it, so I read another one by Janice, comparing NYC to a grizzly bear, and one by Leah who wrote about immigrants and called her poem “Welcome New Americans! (“Welcome Immigrants! You are imported good!”)

I took photos and shared Allan’s poem on Instagram with a comment:

“Ever notice how most children proudly make their work visible and most adults don’t?"

A friend responded:

“Because they don’t have the fear of rejection yet.”

“She’s right,” I thought, and yet… “Out Loud” doesn’t have to be about acceptance and rejection, or about megaphones and self-promotion. It can be about the pure offering of a gift, one without the expectation of applause.

I tried this.

I made this.

I learned this. 

I enjoyed this.

I hope you like it or find it useful.

When I use the phrase “working out loud,” I think of the times I listened to someone read a short story, or when I read a book to my young son. “Out Loud” can be the basis for a connection, something that brings people closer, something that makes the work come alive.

Photo credit: Wild Edge Poetry Reading in San Francisco

Photo credit: Wild Edge Poetry Reading in San Francisco

New! WOL Circle Guides v4.0 available

If you’re considering forming a Working Out Loud Circle, or just interested in Working Out Loud yourself, a new set of the free WOL Circle Guides are now available. (Scroll down till you see v4.0.)

These are the clearest and most complete guides ever. I improved the flow, completely reworked some of the later weeks, and included more exercises and resources. But I almost didn’t publish them.

WOL on WOL

I was failing to take my own medicine. As much as I encourage people to make their work visible, I was struggling to finish the new guides. I came up with the usual excuses, and months went by.

They’re not good enough yet. 

What if people don’t like them?

I should wait until…

The key to progress was asking for help from the WOL Community on Facebook. That led to an event yesterday where a few dozen people from around the world walked through the material. The event forced me to publish the drafts, and the comments on the call will make the final version even better.

What’s next?

Though the new version isn’t final, it’s ready to use now and I recommend it if you’re about to start a WOL Circle or are in the early stages of one. I’ll incorporate any feedback you have into a new update in early April. Going forward, I anticipate a major upgrade each year and minor changes throughout the year.

The new guides will be the basis for a workbook and a video coaching series later this year. If you’re interested in those, subscribe to the blog and you'll be notified of when they’re available. (Or send me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com if you have suggestions.)

I hope the new guides, workbooks, and videos can help even more people. Though there isn’t any marketing of WOL Circles, they’re in over 20 countries and a wide range of organizations. That’s solely because of people like you who read this blog and spread the word, or who “put the cape on” and decided to try something different in their company.

Thank you.

The best medicine

Did you know that you're 30 times more likely to laugh if you're with somebody else than if you're alone? Why is that?

Yesterday, I came across an example of how laughter spreads. It’s a video my German friends might be familiar with, as it was taken by an improv group on the Berlin Metro in 2011. It starts when a few actors look at their phone and begin laughing. Then several passengers start to smile. Within minutes, laughter has spread to people throughout the entire car. 

I couldn't help but laugh when I watched it. Since it was uploaded, over 7 million people have seen it , and there were numerous articles about it in the press.

“The popularity of the video may help to dispel the belief that Germany is a humorless nation. In a poll conducted earlier this year, More than 30,000 people in 15 European countries were asked to rank the nations with the worst sense of humor and Germany came out on top.”

There’s an old expression that “laughter is the best medicine.” Now we know that positive actions and emotions aren’t just good for you alone, but can be a prescription for helping others, too. A staggering array of behaviors spread through social networks, and the relatively new fields of social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology are helping us understand how this works. 

Maybe, as one commenter wrote, you want to “bring a sense of openness and kindness to the working life.” Or maybe you want to do something to change "the current climate of meanness and separation from our common humanity.”

What behavior will you choose to spread? 

 

The manager who works out loud

Whenever I talk to organizations about open, connected ways of working, this question inevitably comes up: “How do you get leaders to do it?” 

It’s a problem. Most often, managers simply don’t have the time to learn a different way of leading. Or their habits are so deeply-ingrained that doing something different is too difficult. Sometimes the challenge is digital, in that they’re unfamiliar with communication and collaboration tools besides email. 

But there are absolutely managers who are working differently - who are leading in a more effective, engaging way. Those that do experience a wide range of benefits.

 

Explaining decisions, building trust

In one IT department, the security team abruptly cut off access to Github, a a valuable online tool used by thousands of developers at the company. Employees were shocked and angry. To them, it was a sign that management had no idea how work got done and was completely out of touch. People complained on the enterprise social network, and someone posted a question, asking the executive if they could “shed some light” on the decision.

The executive responded. He started by recognizing the importance of the issue to developers. Then he explained his reasoning in clear, logical terms, while presenting a near-term compromise that was already being worked on. He also invited others to the discussion, and what followed was a set of artifacts, proposals, and conversations that involved hundreds of people. 

Instead of simply publishing a policy statement, the executive listened and engaged. Instead of ignoring the widespread sentiment that management were idiots, he built trust and confidence.

Management By Wandering Around (MBWA)

Wherever I've worked, it was taken for granted that senior managers would travel to different offices to visit with staff there. It was seen as a necessary way to stay in touch with how things were going in a given location. Usually, the manager would deliver a town hall presentation, meet with local managers, have dinner with his team, and be off to the next city. Staff generally appreciated the attention, but the trip could easily involve a week or more, including a lot of time in transit.

There are merits to “management by wandering around,” and it became especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s. For managers used to new communications tools, it’s now easier than ever to do it. These managers don’t wait for the annual trip. As part of their routine, they “wander” around their social intranet throughout the week. In a few minutes, they can come into contact with people, ideas, and issues from around their organization and their company. They can discover the answer to “How’s it going?” at a scale never imagined when MBWA was first taught in business schools.

“Digital Leadership”

When trying to communicate something - a new strategy, say, or the latest culture program - managers traditionally had to rely on “cascading the message.” They would assemble their leadership team, impart their messages, and instruct the group to go forth and spread what was said to their respective teams. And so on. What typically happened, of course, resembled “Chinese Whispers” or “Telephone,” the game that shows “how easily information can become corrupted by indirect communication.” 

One benefit of digital leadership - using modern tools to influence and engage an organization - is that you can eliminate the cascades and reach people directly. Even better, the channels work both ways. For example, an employee at one company had an idea that he believed would make the organization more innovative and collaborative. So he posted it online, and mentioned several executives. Much to his surprise, the executive posted a comment. That led to an exchange and then a series of meetings and proposals. 

With that one comment, the executive signaled to hundreds of people (and perhaps eventually thousands), that he was paying attention, was interested in innovation, and actively supported people who came up with ideas. That’s a more powerful message than any bullet point on any slide cascaded throughout teams, and helped strengthen engagement and rapport.

One more benefit

Some particularly open and curious managers have experimented with Working Out Loud Circles to develop new skills, and I was struck by some of their comments:

“I am overwhelmed by the feedback I got throughout the journey…Our WOL Group is fantastic and our meetings are always one hour of inspiration to move forward. This approach really can change the way you interact with people." 
“I have experienced a completely different way of working on and solving tasks… My circle was both peer pressure and "self-help group" for me, providing motivation and really changing things.”

The more a manager works out loud, the more their view of the organization changes from acronyms, budgets, and processes to human beings connected by shared purpose, shared interests, and shared struggles.

It took me a long time to realize this. For most of my career, I simply did what I saw all the other managers doing. I spent my time in back-to-back meetings, barely knew the hundreds of people in my organization, and felt like I was supposed to have all the answers. It was not a recipe for enjoying work.

If there's a manager you care about, send them this post, and help them work out loud by serving as a reverse mentor or inviting them to join a WOL Circle. Help them take a step towards a better way of working, one that's better for them as well as the people who work with them.

The permission you’ve been waiting for

Earlier this week I wrote about our lack of control at work and asked, “When you have to ask for permission at work for the simplest of things, how does that make you feel?” You might relate to some of the responses:

“I feel powerless, unappreciated. Like I'm a child asking for a second helping.”
“Like a fool.”
“It undermines trust and confidence.”

I described how the very companies striving to be more innovative and agile are often the ones that systematically rob employees of control. I told a story of how I was upbraided for not seeking permission, and how I felt humiliated.

And yet there’s someone at work who places more limits on you than your boss, or any policy or process.

It’s you.

The truth is that you have much more authority over your work and how you do it than you might care to admit. Every day you have some control over who you interact with and what you do. And every day you have complete control over how you interact with others and how you approach the work you need to do.

It took me decades to realize this. And I’m still learning that when you react to negativity with negativity, for example, you’re making a choice. When you say yes to pointless meetings, complain about how busy you are, and never schedule an hour for your own development, you’re making a choice.

I remember reading a post titled, “Do you need a permit?” by Seth Godin. It was in 2010.

“Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe?
The accepted state is to be a cog. The preferred career is to follow the well-worn path, to read the instructions, to do what we're told. It's safer that way. Less responsibility. More people to blame.
If you think there's a chance you can make a dent, GO. 
Now. Hurry. You have my permission. Not that you needed it.”

It inspired me to be more ambitious, to try and make a bigger contribution without having to be told to do so. But you don’t need to wait for inspiration or a new job to make a difference. In The Art of Happiness at Work, the Dalai Lama said, 

“Somebody may work on an assembly line with little variation in how to do their tasks, but they still have other kinds of choices in terms of their attitudes, how they interact with their co-workers, whether they utilize certain inner qualities or spiritual strengths to change their attitude at work.”

Starting right now, you can choose to be a kinder, more generous person at work. You can choose to learn and explore more, to actively look for the purpose and meaning in what you do. You can be a leader in one of the most important ways possible - through your example.

Every email, every meeting, even every ride in the elevator is a chance to make work better for yourself and those around you. Will you give yourself permission?

Your permission slip.jpg

Asking for permission

It may seem odd, but I enjoy working with big companies. More precisely, I enjoy helping the people who work there. Having been an employee in large corporations for decades, I can relate to what employees experience. I know the many slings and arrows they have to face in the workplace, and how they can affect you over time.

One of those things is having to ask for permission.

No good deed…

Not all companies are the same, of course. But there seems to be a mania about control, about the manager having to know and approve of what each of his direct reports (ah, the military language!) is doing.

Sometimes it’s about money. Can I buy pizza for my team to celebrate our milestone? Sometimes it’s about time. I’ve been invited to a free conference to learn from other companies. May I go? Sometimes, it’s just about control.

One time I was invited to give a talk related to my project at another location in my company. My division had announced a travel freeze, so I told the host she would have to pay expenses, which she did. The morning of my talk, though, I received frantic calls and emails from my boss at 7am. It turns out his boss (who, ironically, was traveling) wanted to know why I was in another city. When I explained how the event related to our goals and that there were no expenses involved, the objection they raised was that I hadn’t asked for permission - and that it should never happen again. 

The new normal

At the time, I thought perhaps this was about me or about a dysfunctional organization. But now that I’m working with a wide range of companies, I see that it’s quite normal. 

I see how the very same companies who want more innovative, agile cultures are the ones that systematically rob people of control, either through their policies or through the caprice of managers trying to validate their position in the hierarchy. I see how experienced, talented employees who desperately want to do good work are forced to ask permission for even the simplest of things.

What choice do you have? 

You probably know some exceptions, the kinds of people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. I’m thinking of notable examples like Celine Schillinger at Sanofi, Harald Schirmer at Continental, and Katharina Krentz at Bosch. I know that each of them has faced resistance in the pursuit of doing meaningful, important work. Yet they’ve all found a way to do it and lead change. Over time, by working in an open, connected way, they’ve become fantastic ambassadors for their companies.

They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?

If you’re a manager, you might start by asking yourself a question the next time you feel the need for control: Is this necessary? Rules and policies are fine, but stifling creativity and engagement hurts everyone, including managers. 

If you’re an employee trying to do good work despite the constraints, look to people who are already finding a way to do it. Their openness and consistent contributions over time are what provide them with some level of career insurance. After all, it’s harder to punish someone whose contributions are publicly validated by others. Also, their larger personal networks give them options, and thus more control of their own careers.

Several companies I work with are genuinely trying to create corporate cultures that are more innovative, that encourage more experimentation and a bias to action. To achieve that, we’ll need a different kind of permission, the kind that says, “I trust you to do what you think is right. Please go ahead.”

The Happiness Jar & The Curse Cup

They sit on the window ledge in my living room. I’m looking at them now: The Happiness Jar and the Curse Cup. They’re visible reminders of the choices I get to make throughout each day.

The Happiness Jar came first. The idea, attributed to Elizabeth Gilbert (or at least it was on her Facebook page that I had first seen it) is simple. Each day, you reflect on something that made you happy, write it down on a small piece of paper along with the date, and put it in a jar. Then at the end of the year, you open the jar and randomly read through all those happy moments. (You can find instructions and variations here and here.)

It has same benefits as keeping a gratitude journal. The act of reflecting on positive things and writing them down each day (or even anticipating that process) makes you more mindful of the happiness you experience each day. It could be something your child or friend or spouse did to make you feel loved or appreciated. Or the fulfillment you got from doing good work or exercise. Or simply the way the sun felt or the food tasted.

Like writing in a journal, it takes a while for it to become part of your routine. Though capturing a happy moment only takes a few seconds each day, my first attempt at a Happiness Jar wound up languishing on my bookshelf. It was only when I put the jar in a visible place along with some post-its and a pen, and put it on my progress chart, that depositing something in the jar became a habit.

The Curse Cup came later, and it's also simple: every time you curse, you deposit some money in the cup. While I’m not offended by cursing, I didn’t like that it had become an unthinking habit. Between growing up in The Bronx and working on trading floors, cursing seemed like a natural part of my self-expression. But when my children commented on my “bad words” and a few readers pointed them out in my writing, I decided there’s enough cursing in the world that I didn’t need to add to it. 

I said the kids could split whatever money was in the cup at the end of the year. So now I have an eager peer support group at home, waiting to assist me by pointing out whenever I curse and demanding I deposit a dollar for each offense.

These are trivial changes to my environment and to my day, and yet they’ve shifted my thinking. They've made me more mindful of a choice I get to make: I can focus on the good things in my life and be actively on the lookout for more, or I can add to already-too-much negativity and anger in the world.

The Happiness Jar and The Curse Cup. Which one will I contribute to today? 

If your innovation program isn’t producing much innovation

Your company almost certainly has an innovation program. They may call it something else, or include it in a culture change or digital transformation effort. But no matter the name, companies are all looking to create a more innovative culture, one where individuals contribute more ideas and, importantly, collaborate to bring those ideas to life.

If you have such a program, it probably isn’t producing the kind of change you want. Why not? Because despite the tools you bought and the events you held and even the exhortations of management, most people simply aren’t sure what to do and how to do it.

Some companies I’m working with are about to try something different.

Is your current innovation program a bad idea?.jpg

Where Good Ideas Come From

Most companies think of their innovation program as a big suggestion box. Sometimes they'll offer a prize in an effort to get more people to deposit their Powerpoint slides into the box, and organize a committee of managers to select the best ones. Unfortunately, this tends to breed competition and hiding of information instead of collaboration, and produces little actual work beyond the slides. Sometimes, companies even set up a special Innovation Group, a creative silo of its own that’s apart from everyday work and forever struggles to be relevant or make an impact.

For a better understanding of how innovation actually happens, Steven Johnson’s oft-cited book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is an excellent primer. Analyzing a wide range examples from over centuries, he showed that innovation isn’t the results of a hidden genius and The One Big Idea, but from the exchange and interaction of many ideas.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos,” he wrote. What he meant was that new ideas typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people who recombine and reconfigure them till the result is an innovation of a kind.

Barriers to innovation

We know this is true, and there is example after example after example of people working in an open, connected way. to accelerate the pace of innovation. Yet we rarely see it at work. Why? 

After watching yet another TED talk describing how a group made their work visible, connected with other experts, and went on to create something new, I wrote about the barriers I saw most often in the workplace:

"I don’t know how." Despite the large number of examples on the web, the vast majority of people have simply never experienced sharing their work online and collaborating with others as a result. And some may not have a convenient facility for publishing content at work.
"I don’t know if it will be useful." For the minority of people that know what to do and have a way to do it, there’s often an uncertainty as to whether their contributions would be valuable. They also struggle with how to get the attention of relevant people.
"I won’t get credit." A more insidious barrier is when people feel their contributions won’t be recognized. Particularly in a management system of competitive ratings and bonuses, there is a heightened sense of internal competition. Feeling like you’re fighting for your share of a finite pie will grossly inhibit your willingness to contribute and collaborate.

A different approach to innovation

The companies I’m working with now are trying to address these barriers in a novel way. They still have the tools, the events, and the management exhortations. But they are also providing employees with help. 

Together, we’re adapting Working Out Loud Circles to give employees hands-on, practical experience. The peer support groups, using Circle Guides tailored for experimentation, begin with smalls steps such as making an idea visible and searching for individuals and groups related to their idea both inside and outside the company. Over a period of weeks, participants practice outreach and ways to deepen relationships that lead to collaboration while learning how to make more of their thinking, learning, and other work visible in a way that’s useful to others. Throughout the process, managers are paying attention to what’s happening online, providing recognition and support, asking questions, and offering their own contributions

Each individual that participates shapes their reputation while they develop their personal network. As Circles spread, so does a culture of innovation, of “putting more parts on the table” (as Steven Johnson says), and reshaping and recombining them.

Instead of a funnel of ideas leading to a committee, or a beauty contest to see who has the best slides, resources can be allocated based on who has taken an idea, built a tribe around it, prototyped it, and gathered support and evidence.

Innovation isn’t just about an idea or a program, it’s about a practice. 

Looking in the mirror

“When a man of my age shaves his face in the morning,
Who is it that stares back and greets him?”

When I heard those lyrics for the first time, I stopped and paid attention. Who do I see when I look in the mirror?

“The ghost of his father long dead all these years?
Or the boy that he was, still wet in the ears?
Or the terrible sum of all of his fears,
In the eyes of this stranger who meets him?”

The truth is that I rarely consider the question, rarely look deeply.

“So his glance rarely strays from his chin or his jawline,
To face up to the truth of his soul,
It's the eyes he avoids so afraid to acknowledge,
Something strange, unexpected, out of control.”

For most of us, it’s easier to turn away than face the “truth of your soul.” And yet…

“There are times when a man needs to brave his reflection,
And face what he sees without fear,
It takes a man to accept his mortality,
Or be surprised by the presence of a tear.” 

When I look now, I still see the young boy, and the sum of my fears. I see the flaws and mistakes. I also see hope, and persistence. It’s only recently that I can look deeply and accept what I see.

Try it if you can. Quiet your mind, silencing the critics and the fans, and look in the mirror when no one else is watching. What do you see?

***

The lyrics are by Sting, from his original musical, “The Last Ship,” and he tells the story of writing it in his TED talk. He had battled for years with being unable to write songs, and it was only when he returned to where he was born, near a shipyard on the northeast coast of England, that things changed.

“It's ironic that the landscape I'd worked so hard to escape from, and the community that I'd more or less abandoned and exiled myself from should be the very landscape, the very community I would have to return to to find my missing muse.
And as soon as I did that, as soon as I decided to honor the community I came from and tell their story, that the songs started to come thick and fast.”

Here’s a recording of a live performance of the music. I listen to it often.

A better approach to mentoring at work

I had two kinds of mentors when I worked in big organizations. One was assigned to me as part of a mentoring program. He was a direct report of the head of our division, and his secretary would occasionally arrange a lunch appointment for us. Because of his position, I was cautious about what I said to him.

My other mentors weren’t part of any program. They were people I chose, either because they excelled at what they did or because they cared enough about me to listen and provide objective feedback.

Who do you think I learned more from?

Most companies I speak with fully understand the value of good mentoring relationships, yet they’re stuck with traditional programs. Here are two ways they can do better.

Peer mentoring

Part of what makes for a successful mentoring relationship is choice. Preserving both parties’ perception of control will directly increase their motivation. Another part is psychological safety. Even with the presumption of confidentiality, it’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re talking to someone who's directly responsible for your compensation or promotion (or is closely connected to someone who is).

Peer mentoring can help with these issues, especially if it’s a group of peers, and their aggregated knowledge, networks, and experience can be considerable. A Lean In Circle is a good example of such a group. 

Another example is a Working Out Loud Circle. Instead of offering just general support, each person takes specific steps towards a goal they care about, and develops relationship-building skills as they do. Simple guides for each meeting provide structure, and ensure that each person has both something to gain and something to offer. More than a conversation each week, it's a shared experience, one that individuals can repeat with each new goal they pursue.

Reverse mentors

Reverse mentor programs flip the traditional model, with a (generally) younger person providing some kind of coaching or support to a more senior manager. The programs are opt-in, which preserves autonomy on both sides. The topics are usually centered around things younger people would naturally know more about (technology, perhaps, or “what millenials want”). That preserves psychological safety. 

Such a program can provide a safe place for executives to learn about something new, and for the reverse mentor to become more familiar with what managers do and how they do it. But most programs lack the structure to provide meaningful exchanges or experiences, and waste the opportunity. It can become, like the lunches with my mentor, just a series of periodic chats. Nice, but insubstantial.

To solve that problem, there’s a version of Working Out Loud Guides specifically developed for such a program. (You could also use them with executive assistants acting as reverse mentors.) Each week, the guides specify preparation the reverse mentor does before the meeting. Then they offer the manager simple steps for using digital tools to reach and engage people. Through deliberate practice in each session, the executive learns how to search and listen online, to connect with people, and to reinforce desired behaviors. 

An experiment you can try in your organization

Though simple, these lightweight mentoring programs can solve some longstanding problems. 

Take, for example, the use of digital tools by executives. Organizations spend millions on new tools for communicating and collaborating, and yet most of their executives don’t take advantage of them. When I mentioned that to a group of HR professionals this week, the audience responded with a lot of head nodding and nervous laughter. “We have a lot of work to do,” they said. But they also agreed they could easily find ten managers who would participate in a “Digital Leaders” reverse mentoring program. Those ten managers, working in a more visible way, could then inspire the next twenty, and so on.

Another problem I wrote about recently is the on-boarding of employees. Companies put a lot of effort into orientation events that, over a few intense days, may well inspire people. But what happens after that? Those enthusiastic new joiners are left with little or no support for navigating their new organization. As an experiment, you could pick one orientation group and offer them the chance to form Working Out Loud Circles. Then use feedback from that first wave to validate that they’re indeed more productive and connected more quickly.

You know you can do better than the traditional programs. Take a small step and see for yourself.