Pema’s dishes

When I first read this story, it made me optimistic. “If this can happen to her,” I thought, “then there’s still hope for me.” It’s from Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, the renowned Buddhist nun.

“I had just finished my evening practice. I had been practicing all day, after which you might think I would be in a calm, saintly state of mind. But as I came out of my room and started to walk down the hall, I saw that in our serving area someone had left dirty dishes. I started to get really angry.
Now, in the retreat we put our name on our dishes…So I was walking down and I was trying to see whose name was on those dishes. I was already pretty sure whose name was on them, because there was only one woman of our group of eight who would leave such a mess. She was always just leaving things around for other people to clean up. Who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves? I was really getting into this. I was thinking, “I’ve known her for a long time, and everyone thinks she’s a senior practitioner, but actually she might as well have never mediated for the way she’s so inconsiderate of everybody else on this planet.”
When I got to the sink, I looked at the plate, and the name on it was “Pema,” and the name on the cup was “Pema,” and the name on the fork and on the knife was “Pema.” Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.”

My first reaction was “So it’s not just me.” Even the most spiritual, compassionate, highly trained person gets angry sometimes, and makes up stories in her head. It’s part of the human condition. 

Then I noticed how she handled it. No additional drama. No self-recrimination. I imagined her smiling and shaking her head, thankful for the lesson manifested by some dishes. People make mistakes, and part of the practice is learning how to pause before you get carried away with the storyline, to be open to other possibilities before you react and to offer loving kindness for yourself and others when you do.

“Everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.”

Taking off the mask

Imagine you’re in a large room full of people you don’t know. You feel slightly awkward, unsure where to start, as you continue to look for familiar faces. Then, amidst an attempt to make small talk with someone, you discover you have something in common, and you grab onto it like a rope connecting the two of you.

Maybe you shared a small thing, like where you were born or went to school or that you have children of the same age. Or maybe it’s something you experienced, like losing someone to a disease, or suffering from one yourself. That exchange, that bond, can fundamentally change how you relate to each other. 

Now imagine that room is actually your company, full of thousands of people from across the world. 

The mask we wear

“The fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.” wrote Haruki Murakami. But at work, most of us feel compelled to hide behind a mask of cool professionalism. As a result, our “greatest asset” is reduced to an impersonal sameness, and the chances for human connection are greatly reduced.

You needn’t wear all your personal information on your sleeve or announce it in every meeting. You just have to be your whole self, willing and open to offer what makes you you. When you feel you can do that, you experience what neuroscientists might call an “internal resonance” or “coherence.” producing a sense of confidence and clarity.

You've almost certainly felt the negative effects of "putting on a good face" at work, despite what was happening around you and inside you.

A simple example at work

I wrote recently about a workshop with 550 engineers. We formed them into 110 groups of five people, and this time we tried something different: we started by asking them to list 10 facts about themselves. I offered my own example.

“Your facts can include things that describe you. For example, I live in New York City. I have five children. My wife is Japanese. I’m a vegetarian. My grandparents emigrated from Italy.
They can also be things you’ve experienced, both pleasant and unpleasant. I had a wonderful holiday in Provence. I was laid off. My mother was a diabetic.
List ten things that make you you.”

After a short period of reflection and list-making, we asked them to share some of their facts within their small groups, looking for connections and things they found remarkable. The energy in the room changed. It was no longer 550 engineers with specific titles in a big company. It was 550 human beings, each with their own story. The trust and interaction flowed more freely, more naturally.

There’s a longer version of this exercise in Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle. It’s called “So much to offer!” It’s there to help people experience that it’s okay to be yourself at work, that sharing who you are can be a kind of contribution, and the basis of a meaningful connection with someone.

We don’t need to shed our individuality when we come to the office. “People are our greatest asset” only if we let them be real people, only if we let ourselves be our true selves.

"Mask" by Henry Moore

"Mask" by Henry Moore

A tale of two inboxes

Imagine you’re on holiday and you think about checking email from work. How does that make you feel? How do you deal with that feeling?

I’m off this week, so this was more than a thought exercise. Over several decades, I have learned to dread email while I’m on vacation. When I ignored it, my background stress would accumulate and burst into the foreground. When I checked it often, there was bound to be something upsetting that would color my mood for the day. Gradually, I developed a system whereby I would hide my phone and limit my email-checking to specific times, but even that didn’t eliminate my anxiety.

This week was different. As I thought about the mails I had received, they were almost all positive and helpful. For sure, some involved “work” - follow-ups or requests or some kind of issue - yet even those emails were friendly and nicely-worded. “It’s odd,” I told my wife, “but I actually look forward to checking email now.” 

Of course, I’m working for myself for over a year, but I don't think that explains the difference. Companies aren't necessarily bad and being independent isn't necessarily good. Instead, I think the difference between inboxes isn’t due to whether you’re an employee or not, but due to the culture of your organization, and how people feel about being a part of it. 

I claim that even in big companies we can learn to relate to each other - and to ourselves - with more compassion and generosity, with more kindness. We can discover how much more effective and fulfilled we can be. It requires behavioral change at scale which makes it difficult - and yet that’s something I’m confident we can accomplish. 

My old inbox used to contain things done to me, and my new inbox seems to contain things done for me. Which inbox would you rather have?

A workshop for 550 engineers

I was nervous about this one. Although I’ve delivered workshops before, the crowds have ranged from 25 to 100 people or so. This would be five times the largest one. An even bigger challenge would be that they were engineers at Bosch, responsible for manufacturing and logistics in plants around the world. Not a typical WOL audience.

Here’s how it went.

The talk

I was to open the second day. The attendees had already heard from speakers who talked about innovation and technology trends. Bernd Häuser, the senior vice president responsible for manufacturing at Bosch, was the man responsible for making WOL part of the conference. He introduced Working Out Loud as “something practical,” something they could each apply themselves.

My talk usually covers the basic questions:

  • What is Working Out Loud?
  • What are the benefits?
  • How does it spread?
  • Who else is doing it and why?

But I adapt each talk depending on the audience. For this group of engineers, I focused on how Working Out Loud can help you be more effective, giving you access to more knowledge while accelerating the rate of innovation and continuous improvement. 

I also sought to demystify the practice, telling stories about engineers as diverse (and as old) as Alexander Humboldt and W. Edwards Deming, showing how even they were proponents of elements of Working Out Loud. Towards the end, I gave examples of how WOL Circles are spreading in other engineering companies.

“Now it’s your turn,” I said.

The workshop

We had prepared tables at the back of the huge auditorium, and asked everyone to form into groups of five, preferably with people they didn’t already work with. I was joined by Sabine Kluge from Siemens, Katharina Krentz who introduced WOL at Bosch, and Bosch’s WOL co-creation team. (The team is comprised of remarkable volunteers who want to contribute to spreading the practice. You can read more about their work here and watch it here.)

The plan was that, together with Sabine and Katha, I would guide the 110 groups through WOL Circle exercises from Weeks 1 and 2. But the three of us weren’t convinced this would work. What if they took too long to self-organize? What if they thought the process was too “soft”? What if we lost their attention or never got it to begin with?

The results

We needn’t have worried. The crowd had already been together for a day, and they were eager for more interaction and connection. I gave brief instructions before each exercise, and Sabine and Katha offered their own insights. While the Circles were working, the co-creation team would walk around the room and offer “micro-coaching” to answer questions or clarify things. 

The room was buzzing. We began with an exercise Sabine suggested which immediately helped the Circle members to relate to each other and feel comfortable. Then they went on to share their individual goals, write down lists of people related to those goals, and offer contributions right there in the room.

The last step was to offer them the chance to keep going. “You have already experienced what it’s like to be in a Circle,” I said. “Now you can continue that experience after the conference. It’s as easy as writing your email address on a piece of paper.”

200 people signed up.

Afterwards, we all breathed a sigh of relief, and we talked about what worked and what could be better. Perhaps the best thing about the workshop, beyond the level of engagement and the number of new Circle members, was that we were able to reach people in the core business from around the world, including senior management.

“This is an important milestone for us,” Katha said. “We reached a new level.” 

A teacher on the train to Munich

Her name was Helga. She looked to be in her late fifties or so, and she had a big pleasant smile and shining eyes. I could tell she was friendly early on when, shortly after we departed, I closed my eyes and she said she'd wake me up when we got to Munich. After my short nap, we started to talk. 

She told me she teaches young children, from first through eighth grade, sometimes high school. She loves watching them develop, she said, and feels attached to them. She told me about one girl who invited her to her first communion and later her confirmation at church. The young girl told Helga, “When I get married I will invite you.” Two decades later, an invitation arrived in the mail, and Helga went. "They become attached to me too," she said. 

“Scherben bringen Glück”

As part of the ceremony, she told me people would bring porcelain plates or bowls and break them. She said the German expression was “Scherben bringen Glück” and we struggled together to come up with an English translation: “Shards bring good luck.”

She said it always reminded her of something that happened when she was a child. She was five years old, washing and drying dishes by hand together with her grandmother. (“There were no machines,” she said. “It was a different time.”)

Helga dropped a cup and it smashed on the floor. Her grandmother reassured her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s okay. Scherben bringen Glück.

Lessons for a lifetime & beyond

Helga told me how her grandmother encouraged her to keep trying. “If you don't work, you make no faults.” Of course, she said, you may avoid mistakes if you don’t try things, but that is not the way to live a life. Helga said she often told her students stories about her grandmother. “The children love them.” 

I thought of how many things I avoided in my life because I was afraid to “make faults.” I thought of how the spirit of Helga’s grandmother lives on in her and, through her stories, in her students. 

The train rolled on. We talked about Helga’s three sons and her two year-old granddaughter. I showed her photos of my own children. As we pulled into Munich and said our goodbyes, she told me, “I'm sure you’re a lovely father.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “I know you’re a wonderful teacher.” 

A Working Out Loud Conference in December(?)

A few months ago, a group of companies in Germany met for a day to exchange how they might help spread the practice of Working Out Loud. We exchanged ideas and challenges, and got to know each other better. It was lovely.

This week we met again (see this Storify of the event by Daimler), and the progress in the past few months has been extraordinary for some companies. One got the attention of board members for supporting WOL programs. Another started their on-boarding pilot. Another is actively spreading it in China and India. In the afternoon, we worked together on different topics that would be of use and interest to all of us, and that would advance the practice. It was good work with good friends.

But something was missing. We all want help other organizations build their own WOL movement. There’s a growing list of companies that are starting to spread Working Out Loud, and even more that are interested. Yet while we don’t want our working group to be an exclusive club, we also recognize that working groups become unworkable if they’re too big. And it’s the rare company or person that would invest this much time helping others.

So what could be a way to help others get started and benefit from the lessons of the early adopters?

That’s when we began considering a public WOL conference. The first experiment would likely be in Stuttgart, and limited to 100 people or so. The objective wouldn’t be money or marketing, but helping companies who are actively engaged in spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.

If we organized such an event this year, perhaps in early December, would you be interested in attending? If so, what would be most valuable to you?

What to do when you’re in a room full of strangers

How do you feel when you’re about to go to a conference or a party and realize you may not know anyone there? What do you do?

Recently, someone sent me a LinkedIn message saying she was stressed about going to an event because “a lot of networking is expected” and she didn’t know what to do.

We had the following exchange:

Me: “Here’s a pro tip: Imagine that everyone in that conference has a story, one that makes them human and interesting and special. Now imagine it's your job to discover that in each person.” 
She: “My biggest issue is that I have nothing to offer those people except my attention, appreciation and huge interest.”
Me: “Nothing to offer except...the most precious things we all want!!!! The problem isn't that you don't have enough. It's that you don't know the value of what you already have.”

I can relate to how she feels, though. Just yesterday I went to an event in a foreign country with hundreds of people I didn't know. Everyone was talking (in another language) and laughing, and I was sitting by myself. I felt like a small child alone on the playground.

Then I remembered my own advice. I began asking more questions. Not the usual smalltalk but something that showed I was genuinely interested. Not “What do you do?” but “What’s the thing you’re most excited about now?” If they happened to mention they had come from another city, I asked about where they grew up, what they missed, and what they liked about their new place. If they mentioned children, I asked their ages and we would talk about parenting. 

All I had to offer was my attention and a bit of vulnerability as I asked questions that were more personal. It led to them asking me more questions too.  It changed my experience of the event from potentially stressful to positively lovely.

A few days after that LinkedIn exchange, I got an update.

“It was great and your tip worked very well. The idea that I am actually discovering another person rather than networking or building connections made me more relaxed and I think even more natural. I got rid of the feeling that I have to entertain the other person… I feel very good!!”

“Discovering another person” is a beautiful way to put it. You’re not networking to get something, but to discover something, and that makes all the difference.

A year on my own

A year ago, after having worked in big companies my entire life, I decided to start a company of my own. I figured I would mark my anniversary by answering the question people ask me most:

“How’s it going?”

The trade-offs quickly became obvious

It didn’t take long for me to experience the advantages. Immediately, I was in control of my time and my work, and that was both empowering and fulfilling. Like shedding a heavy overcoat that had grown increasingly uncomfortable, I left behind the mundane anxieties, the manufactured drama, and the sheer senselessness of some of what I did each day. I felt lighter. I felt liberated.

The disadvantage was equally clear: the paycheck that was deposited twice a month was no longer going to arrive.

Building my way forward

Though I had published Working Out Loud a year earlier, and had interacted with people and companies in different countries, I had no firm idea how I would make a living. I figured I could deliver presentations and workshops, and do some consulting. But I knew many people who were doing the same and were struggling. Why would I be different?

So I tried experiment after experiment. Most didn’t amount to much, but each one helped me practice my craft or get feedback on a new idea. They refined my sense of the work I wanted to do as well as what other people valued. After six months or so, I had a few more customers and an emerging sense of what I could offer them.

And so it continues. I’m writing this on a train in Germany where I’ll work with five different companies in four cities. More experiments. More learning. My fledgling business isn’t a success, it's a work in progress. Step by step.

I can’t say I’d recommend what I’m doing to someone else. The odds are too high. Most days it feels like there’s no ground beneath your feet. As a result, I have more compassion for my former self, working at big corporations for so long. I also have more respect than ever for anyone who tries to build something on their own, whatever it is.

Finding my ikigai

A year ago, I named my new company “Ikigai” after the Japanese word for “a reason for living.” I feel like I’ve found my ikigai now. It’s to change how people relate to each other, to themselves, and to the work they do. When I get it right, the methods I’m developing help individuals be more effective and feel happier. They make work more human, compassionate, and connected. Maybe someday they’ll change the culture of a company, or even a country. Step by step.

I think the photo of me and my daughter on a rollercoaster captures how I feel after my first year on my own. I’m happy and excited and scared all at the same time. There’s so much to do and so much I don’t know. But the feeling of purpose makes it worth it. Just like that rollercoaster, I can’t wait to get back on for another ride.

You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself? 

The missing piece in most quality programs

I fell in love with W. Edwards Deming over twenty-five years ago. He was already in his 90s by then, but his philosophy of work and management was only gradually spreading. I felt like I had discovered A Fundamental Truth. But like other Truths, it was inconvenient to people in power, and was ignored or purposefully misinterpreted.

So when I saw a recent article titled “Deming, Finally!” I was curious. When I noticed it was co-authored by Celine Schillinger, I made a point to read it carefully, since I greatly respect her work driving change at the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi.

“Today, everyone in the manufacturing quality world has read, heard, spoken about Deming. His vision for quality and “14 points of management” as well as the “System of Profound Knowledge” in particular are inescapable reference points.
However, Pharma may have got this all wrong for the last 30 years. By focusing on processes, control and exhortations, manufacturers have missed the essence of Deming’s message.
Deming advised us to actually put the Human at the center of quality and to focus on how the system works.”

The missing piece in most quality programs is the human being. Deming understood that and most of the elements of “the Future of Work” decades ago, but he wasn’t really heard.

Deming would have benefited from better communications & behavior change methods, and I think Working Out Loud Circles can help with both - whether it’s work in an office or in manufacturing plants, in hospitals or schools. I’ll offer some specific suggestions in an upcoming post. In the meantime, read Celine’s article if you can, and let me know what you think about the topic. 

How would you make quality and continuous improvement more human?

When you’re looking for your purpose, “Build your way forward”

Even if you’re fortunate, it’s a common pattern. You begin with a sense that you’re meant to do something purposeful, that you’re special. With the passing of time and with each job, however, that sense of specialness fades. It’s replaced by a nagging disappointment or, worse, resignation. I guess that’s all there is. 

That certainly was my own experience. When I was young, I had high hopes but I also had no idea of what I wanted to do. So I simply reacted to whatever presented itself. As I got older, I relied on my experience in my first jobs to advance and make more money. Doing anything different seemed increasingly impossible. How could I start over?

Recently though, I’ve observed a different pattern. It’s one that gives me hope, and is something anyone can implement on their own. The pattern has three stages: Interest, Practice, and Purpose.

1. Interest

The best description I’ve found of how to explore your interests is in Designing Your Life, based on a course taught by two professors at Stanford. They refer to it as “wayfinding.”

“Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination. For wayfinding, you need a compass and you need a direction. Not a map - a direction… Since there’s no one destination in life, you can’t put your goal into your GPS and get the turn-by-turn directions for how to get there. What you can do is pay attention to the clues in front of you and make your best way forward.”

Maybe you have an inkling of what you’re interested in. Maybe you took a test and it pointed you in a direction. Then what? What would you do next, and how might you explore other interests that might be even better for you?

“Try reframing the challenge as an exploration of possibilities (instead of trying to solve your problem in one miraculous leap)…The way forward is to reduce the risk (and the fear) of failure by designing a series of small prototypes to test the waters….one of the principles of design thinking is that you want to ‘fail fast and fail forward’ into your next step.”

The book is filled with many examples of such prototypes, and the simplest and easiest one is a conversation with someone doing something related to your interest or goal. If you’re interested in real estate, talk to people already working in different real estate businesses. If you have a hobby you love, seek out and connect with people who’ve developed that into something more. 

2. Practice

Now comes the part most people miss: deliberate practice. The goal of prototyping and experimenting isn’t to get to some finish line. It’s to get you to the next experiment, to help you explore possibilities while you learn and develop new skills. It’s the combination of doing, interacting, and getting feedback that enables you to advance in the direction you’re interested in. 

For example, I’ve always had an interest in writing, yet for decades I didn’t do anything about it. I started by simply reading more, which sparked my curiosity. My first experiment was to write a blog post on my company’s intranet. I was in my 40s. Then I talked with a journalist who encouraged me and gave me constructive criticism and advice. In the first year, I only wrote 6 posts. I struggled, got more feedback, and learned. I began writing once a month, and later wrote my first public post. Writing became a habit, leading to hundreds of blog posts and a book. The skills I developed along the way - and the relationships I developed as I did it - enabled me to discover a new career in my 50s.

“Deliberate practice” isn’t just for one particular skill, it’s for life.

3. Purpose

Angela Duckworth describes the three phases - interest, practice, and purpose - in her bestselling book, Grit. Her research brought her into contact with thousands of accomplished people and she found few “naturally talented” people. 

“The more common sequence is to start out with a relatively self-oriented interest, then learn self-disciplined practice, and, finally, integrate that work with an other-centered purpose.”

It’s that third stage that is perhaps most surprising to me, and I’m only now starting to understand it. It feels like an awakening of some sort. A psychologist interviewed for Grit described the third stage as when “the larger purpose and meaning of work finally becomes apparent.”

Your next step

The way to design your life is to “build your way forward," using a series of prototypes and interactions to enable you to make it through the three stages. For me, Working Out Loud is what helped me explore my interests, and my WOL Circles have helped me to keep practicing, to continue experimenting and connecting and learning until a purpose emerges.

If you’ve ever felt there is a gap between what you do and something that would be more meaningful, the way to bridge that gap is not with a daring leap but with hundreds or even thousands of small steps. Purpose isn’t something you discover or are born with as much as something that emerges from your passion and perseverance. 

It can be as easy as this

Peter was at a work event, and needed information on a topic that was unfamiliar to him. He had done some research online, and now he was looking for advice.

If you were Peter, what would you do next?

Giving & receiving

You might keep on searching and reading. That’s not a bad strategy. Or you might ask some people at the event or send a few emails to people you think might know something. Instead, Peter posted a simple question on a community site related to the topic. The topic was Working Out Loud. 

“At this very moment I am facilitating a networking event around #NewWork at Deutsche Bahn. One specific session just strived to understand #WOL. Any help or advise is highly appreciated. We have the rest of today plus tomorrow and would love to get started in that timeframe. What immediate first steps would you recommend?”

Within a few minutes he had responses from people in three different cities and companies. Within a few hours, people from Deutsche Bank, Bosch, and BMW as well as independent consultants all offered suggestions and asked questions. As the world turned, more people joined from five different countries. Many more people viewed and reacted to the post.

One of the commenters actually drove to the event to bring Peter a copy of Working Out Loud.

Peter started the discussion by simply offering his attention and vulnerability - “We’re working on this and interested in what you do. Could you help us?” - and the community responded with specific, constructive advice, encouragement, and even a sense of humor.

Maybe it ends there, with a nice discussion. Or maybe Peter tapped into a valuable practice he can spread inside his company and a global network that can help him - all with a simple contribution. It can be as easy as this.

Simon Terry, consultant and leader of Change Agents Worldwide, summed up what many of us in the discussion were thinking.

“Would you recommend this method to your network?”

I can already anticipate my wife’s response when I share this statistic with her. “Darling,” I’ll say, “99% of the people in WOL Circles at Bosch said they would recommend them.”

There will be a pause, then a deadpan stare. “Darling,” she’ll say, “that’s not credible.” 

As usual, she’ll be right. It is hard to believe. Yet the team at Daimler had similar results in their survey.  How can that be?

First, a few disclaimers. The surveys are still small. The one at Bosch included 107 respondents out of the 500+ people who experienced a WOL Circle there, and the Daimler survey wasn’t any bigger. Also, I know that not all Circles are successful. People sometimes drop out because they’re too busy, or just not ready for whatever reason. For sure, we need to collect much more data.

Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable result for a change method inside a large corporation, and I think I know why these two institutions got such great results: It’s the way they introduced and spread WOL Circles.

The best write-up to date is a detailed article from Katharina Krentz at Bosch, where she outlined what they did, how they did it, and provided yet more survey results. 

Katha emphasized the importance of a “co-creation team,” something Daimler has also formed. It’s a group of almost all volunteers who oversee the spread of WOL. They serve as the linchpins within the company, ensuring each Circle gets the support they need and overseeing the spread of the method across the company. They’re the ones who work with me, and who engage HR, Communications, and other divisions for events and integrating Circles into existing processes and programs like employee on-boarding.

This structure helps, and even more important is their approach. They frame WOL Circles as simply a personal development method that’s good for the individual and for the company. It’s described as “a guided mastery program for collaboration and networking.” (One manager at Bosch said he liked the method because “it’s simple, structured, and human.”) As they get more positive feedback, they spread the word while opportunistically looking for ways to spread the method. 

These two co-creation teams are indeed excellent. The people are smart, creative, and kind, and they have an extraordinary ability to get things done. And because they Work Out Loud - offering what they did, how they did it, and what they learned - you can achieve similar results in your organization. 

***

Note: I was wondering about the one percent at Bosch who did not recommend the practice. (Human nature dictates that I focus on the negative 1% instead of the positive 99%!) After I shared the statistic on the WOL Facebook Page, Katharina explained it:

“Fun fact: the 1% comes from someone who skipped this answer - so it was a mistake, not a real “no.”" 

When they do things I could not do

I remember how hard it was when I worked in a big company. Trying to get budget or even attention was like running some Dilbert-ian gauntlet. Trying to make an actual difference was harder still, and I often wanted to give up. 

So when I see people working in large corporations doing what I could not do, I look at them with genuine admiration. How did they do it? Why? Today I want to celebrate some of these people. The list below is by no means complete, and that makes it all the more amazing.

Janine Kirchhof works in HR at Daimler. She felt her WOL Circle helped her tap into a sense of purpose, so she proposed combining Circles into Daimler’s on-boarding process. She secured the support she needed and kicked off the first pilot last week. Going forward, each month she'll be helping new joiners become more productive and connected more quickly.

Katharina Krentz is a pioneer in spreading WOL at Bosch, and she’s the only person (besides me) whose full-time job is spreading the practice of Working Out Loud. She formed a co-creation team that built a movement within the company that has already reached over 500 people, organized the first-ever WOL Conference, piloted WOL for Teams and WOL for Leaders, and now partnered with HR to integrate WOL into their on-boarding program. She even worked with Communications to share what Bosch has done in this wonderful 2 1/2-minute video and this incredibly useful post on LinkedIn.

Three people at BMW - Jasper-John Schaefer, Ilona Libal, and Andreas Schorn - started their WOL efforts from different divisions. Things developed slowly at first, but through a combination of creativity and persistence they got the attention of top management of the company. They now have the support to create their own movement there, and the potential to go further and faster than others who started before them.

I’ve written about the Daimler team before, where Lukas Fütterer and Melanie Rassloff astound me with their creativity, generosity, and the sheer range of what they do. They too have formed a fantastic co-creation team that is spreading Circles and leveraging talent throughout the company to institutionalize WOL as a skill everyone should have.

Bernd Zimmerman is at Siemens, where he’s introduced new methods for developing “senior leadership excellence.” He saw how WOL could be adapted and applied to innovation, fostering a sense of experimentation and prototyping in the company, and helping individuals bring their ideas to life. The first pilot he led quickly turned into several more, and he’s only just begun.

Athanasia Price and Emma Boddington-Stubbs work at Rio Tinto in Australia. Athanasia wrote and spoke about how WOL helped her find "clarity on my purpose at work" and decided to try and spread the practice. Though she was seven months pregnant, she collaborated with HR and worked with Emma to create the first-ever pilot of WOL Circles as part of a graduate training program as well as a digital culture program.

These people are all busy, with full lives and demanding full-time jobs. And yet they crafted their roles so they could help more people, so they could make work even more fulfilling. They all lead by example, inspiring other to do more inside their own companies. 

When I worked in a big company, I could not do what they have done. But now I can contribute in other ways, and the persistence of these people and their ability to execute inspires me to do more, to be more.

I thought work wasn’t supposed to be like this

I still remember a response to one of my earliest posts, one about finding meaning and fulfillment at work. “You’re nuts,” she wrote. “People go to work for money. They go home for meaning and fulfillment.”

I’ve thought about that for years. What if she was right, and I was encouraging people to try anddiscover something that work simply wasn’t designed to offer? How cruel that would be.

Fast forward several years. I’m laying on a yoga mat in an office in a large manufacturing company in Germany. A group of us had worked together for the last three days, and much of it was quite intense. Before my trip, I happened to know that one of them was a yoga instructor. (We were connected on Instagram and other channels, even those of us who barely knew each other.) I half-kiddingly suggested that we have a class after work on Friday. Others responded, and there we were, in a wide array of yoga attire, on our mats among the chairs and flip charts. The class was beautiful, almost spiritual. Afterwards, we hugged each other goodbye.

This kind of connection happened throughout the week. Instead of just small talk in between meetings, we talked about personal aspirations and life experiences. We discovered shared interests as well as new possibilities for how we might collaborate and innovate. By deepening relationships, we changed the very nature of the work we were doing as well as what we might do together in the future.

Oh, and we ate together and laughed. A lot. 

It's true that these particular people are extraordinary. And yet I’ve had similar experiences with other people in other cities in other companies. I’ve observed tremendous generosity and vulnerability, creativity and intelligence, in their work with me as well as with their colleagues. It's those behaviors that lead to meaning and fulfillment.

Once we shed the facade of cool professionalism, we were able to develop a sense of relatedness that opened up all sorts of wonderful possibilities. 

It wasn't just work or just personal. It was human - and it was beautiful.

A different kind of graduation present

It's graduation season now. Young people all over the world are leaving university and embarking on their next adventure. Many of them will be joining new companies and will take their place in a graduate training program.

What would be the best thing you could give them? Money? Nice things? What if you gave them a skill they could use now and forever? One that could make their work and life better?

When I left college, there were just a small number of well-worn career paths. Now it seems there’s an infinite number of trails in ever-changing terrain. The wonderful book Designing Your Life makes the point that we no longer have a map for our career (if we ever did) but just a general direction, and we have to “build our way forward.” The way to do that is by building relationships with people and learning from them, leveraging their experience to refine our own sense of what we like and what’s possible.

The first pilot of WOL Circles for a graduate training program is starting in a few weeks, enabling each of the participants to have a global network inside and outside the company in just 12 weeks. The company that sponsored it wanted to give their new employees something besides a job. They wanted to give them control over their career and access to more possibilities, more chances for meaning and fulfillment.

That’s a wonderful gift. 

“Sticks and stones” was dead wrong

I can remember complaining to my mother when my brother or a schoolmate said something mean, and hearing her tell me, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you.”

Well, it turns out my mom was wrong - and that has consequences both at home and at work. 

How the brain processes social pain

In Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman described the neuroanatomy of pain processing. Though we’ve long understood the mechanisms for how we perceive physical pain, what’s remarkable is that those same mechanisms are involved in processing social pain. One study even showed how taking Tylenol, a common painkiller, “made the brain’s pain network less sensitive to the pain of social rejection.”

Why would this be?

“Mammals, and particularly humans, need to feel social separation as painful. It keeps infants and caregivers close together. That may have been the reason evolution gave us social pain, but now we are stuck with it our entire lives, and it colors almost every social experience we have.”

Not only do names hurt, but their effects are worse. I can put a band-aid on a cut and a cast on a broken bone, but what do I do for bullying? Or feeling like I’m not getting the recognition I deserve at work? We experience social pain every day throughout the day, and we have few remedies.

"Tragic expressions of unmet needs"

One way to lessen social pain is to improve how we communicate. To help, my friend (founder of Fearless inventory) introduced me to Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications. My first reaction was that it was “too touchy-feely.” Then he told me how Rosenberg used the method in political negotiations in the Middle East and Africa, in resolving gang conflicts in the US, and even counseling married couples. That convinced me.

I read the book and watched one of Rosenberg’s workshops, and he described a process that was both empowering and joyful. His simple methods help you clearly state your observations, feelings, needs, and requests without resorting to judgment, shame, criticism, and worse. 

“All such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. They are tragic because when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us.”

The examples he used for “violent” communications were uncomfortably familiar. Even if I'm not often overtly mean, I might use forms of judgment intended to get what I want. I saw how I could improve the ways I made a request, offered feedback, or shared what I was feeling.  

“Words contribute to connection or distance,” Rosenberg wrote, and practicing nonviolent communications was a way of “sharing power with others rather than using power over others.”

First, do no harm (“Primum non nocere”)

Earlier this week, I spoke with an educator in Missouri about this topic. We talked about the discouraging state of dialog, not just in politics and our Facebook feeds but in the workplace and everyday life. 

She said she found herself in situations where she was uncomfortable with what was being said but didn’t know what to do. If she didn’t say anything, she’d feel like she was condoning the behavior. Yet if she challenged the person, they would likely just get defensive, and these were people she needed to work with. She needed to relate to them and work with them, not alienate them. 

We talked about nonviolent communications and agreed that, while it’s hard to practice, a good first step would be “don’t make it worse” by judging or shaming. Simply paying more attention to what you’re saying and why you're saying it - ““how words contribute to connection or distance” - is a good first step to improving how we relate to each other.

Why would these manufacturing companies want to Work Out Loud?

This month I began working with three new clients: a mining company, a chemical company, and a steel company. These are not the kind of clients I ever expected to have, and yet there I was, helping each of them spread Working Out Loud Circles

Why would they care?

In the mining company, it’s HR sponsoring the initiative. They’re integrating WOL Circles into a graduate training program and a digital leaders program, and both groups are looking for ways to help employees be connected, effective, and engaged.

The Chief Digital Officer sponsored the kick-off in the chemical company. They have a wide-reaching remit, including expanding the use and impact of the internal social tools, and Circles will help them tap into more intrinsic motivation for using those tools.

The steel company was different. The initial effort was sponsored by the head of internal communications, who wanted to drive adoption of tools and make the culture even more open and collaborative. But HR was also involved, and we quickly began talking about other challenges where WOL could help.

There is no one best way to introduce Working Out Loud into an organization. It depends on the people, the environment, and the culture. Sometimes WOL is another skill you can learn in the corporate training academy, and sometimes it’s integrated into an existing program like one of these:

  • On-boarding
  • Graduate training
  • Digital transformation
  • Career mobility
  • Talent development
  • Leadership development
  • Diversity
  • Innovation
  • Mentoring

To find your own best way, join a Circle yourself or spread the first few at your organization. A mining company, a chemical company, and a steel company are all ready to try something new: scalable, hands-on, social learning to help their people develop new skills and make their organizations better. 

Are you and your organization ready? 

“Did I take my pill today?”

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s happened more than once. I’ll be holding my bottle of vitamins, staring at it with a puzzled look on my face, wondering if I’ve already taken my pill or was just about to take it.

The first thing I’ll realize is how absent-minded I was being. I was so un-conscious that I could not remember whether I opened the jar and swallowed a pill just a few seconds earlier.

Then I'll think of my mother. She would take medicine daily and would often wonder aloud, “Did I take my pill today?” Instead of offering empathy, my younger self could only react with a mix of irritation and shame. “How could you forget such a simple thing?”

Finally, I'll reflect on the power of nudges. I read recently how simple text messages helped people in Nigeria take their malaria medication. For me, my nudges include putting the vitamins in the same place and taking them at the same time, and checking off a box on my daily progress chart.

Maybe you also have some things you forget, like where you placed your keys. Or maybe it’s something much more important, like telling those around you how much you love and appreciate them.

You’re not thoughtless, you’re human. Each of these moments is a gift, a chance to remember to be mindful, to offer compassion to yourself and others, and to perhaps change your environment a bit so you’ll remember next time.

Neu WOL Circle Leitfaden! (Latest Circle Guides now in German!)

Thanks to the heroic efforts of Katharina Krentz and Monika Struzek at Bosch, the Working Out Loud Circle Guides are now available in German

Many of my German friends pride themselves on being “direct.” So I was particularly pleased when Katha told me “These are the best guides ever! We love them!!!” In this upgrade, I improved the flow, completely reworked some of the later weeks, and included more exercises and resources. They are simpler, clearer, and more complete.

The new WOL Circle 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 ideas or comments.)

Of course, you are the best judge of whether these Circle Guides are effective. Try them, and let me know what you think. What did you like best? What could be improved?

Thank you for using these guides and for any and all comments. And a heartfelt “Vielen Dank” to Katha and Monika. Your contributions and support, and those of the entire co-creation team at Bosch, have inspired me to be and do more. 

An early WOL Circle #selfie. (There are now well over 100 WOL Circles at Bosch.)

An early WOL Circle #selfie. (There are now well over 100 WOL Circles at Bosch.)