If the odds are 100-to-1 in your favor

Suppose you were offered a bet that was practically a sure thing. If you win, you get smarter, you get access to more opportunities, and you feel more empowered and fulfilled. If you lose, you risk a small hit to your ego.

What would you do?

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The game we play

This isn’t an abstract exercise. It’s a game you already play multiple times a day whenever you consider making a contribution.

When you have something you think is helpful, you hesitate even if your experience tells you that others would appreciate it. There’s a chance that someone won’t like it or won't like how you offered it. That person could be someone specific, like your manager, or it could be someone you imagine when you wonder “What will they think?”

Time after time after time, I come across people who are doing extraordinary things - people who are admired by colleagues and a network of people around the world - and they'll tell me privately, “My boss doesn’t like what I’m doing.” Yet even if it was upsetting for them at the time, they persisted. 

More common is the person who doesn’t take a step at all. The mere possibility that someone may not approve is enough to prevent them from making the contributions they would like to make.

I say this without judgment. For me, all it takes is one contrary opinion to fuel my doubts, even in the face of a hundred expressions of support. It took me almost five decades to realize I was ceding control of my life to anyone who said “no.”

Take a spin

The truth is that we have a negative bias in our heads that amplifies our fears and causes us to hang back. We hesitate to reach out, to share our ideas and experiences, to offer what we have to offer. But when it comes to making contributions, “Better safe than sorry” is a terrible long-term strategy, one that leads to regret and a haunting lack of fulfillment. Instead, "it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission" - advice commonly shared but seldom heeded.

The point isn't that you ignore feedback, or that you need to rebel against the system. It's just that you decide whether the negative opinions have merit, choose what adjustments you might make, and continue on with clarity and confidence.

It means you claim your right to having a voice and being heard, to realizing more of your potential, to living an authentic life.

The odds are clear. The benefits far outweigh the risks. What will you do?

Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it

I was going through a stack of old books, re-reading things I had highlighted, when I found this parable in Happiness at Work by Srikumar Rao. He was describing how a shift in your thinking, in how you choose to see the world, can change everything.

“The abbot of a once-famous Buddhist monastery that had fallen into decline was deeply troubled. Monks were lax in their practice, novices were leaving, and lay supporters were deserting to other centers. He traveled far to see a sage and recounted his tale of woe, saying how much he wanted to transform his monastery to the flourishing haven it had been in days of yore. The sage looked him in the eye and said, “The reason your monastery has languished is that the Buddha is living among you in disguise, and you have not honored him.
The abbot hurried back, his mind in turmoil. The Selfless One was at his monastery! Who could he be? Brother Hua? No, he was full of sloth. Brother Po? No, he was too dull. But then the Tathagata was in disguise. What better disguise than sloth or dull-wittedness? He called his monks together and revealed the sage’s words. They too were taken aback and looked at each other with suspicion and awe. Which one of them was the Chosen One? The disguise was perfect. Not knowing who he was, they took to treating everyone with the respect due the Buddha. Their faces started shining with an inner radiance that attracted novices and then lay supporters. In no time at all, the monastery far surpassed its previous glory.”

There's a natural tendency to label people and file them into categories and boxes. It makes life simpler in some ways, but also poorer. 

What if, instead, we remained open to the possibility that each person has something precious inside them? What if we looked deeply for the gifts they have to offer? What if we listened carefully for the stories they have to tell?

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When the CEO isn’t enough

I was sitting in the audience as the divisional CEO delivered his talk to over 500 people. He was encouraging them to try new ways of working, to experiment more, connect across silos, and continuously learn. Not only would it be better for them as individuals, he told them, but the company needed this kind of culture and attitude. The enthusiasm was palpable.

Then he opened the floor to questions from the audience, and a hand went up.

“But what do I tell my manager?”

Fear and control

The employee's concern was understandable. Despite exhortations from top management, the new values posted on the walls, the cultural change program, it still didn’t feel safe to do things differently. Too many other people got into trouble doing that, so why take the risk?

Without a sense of psychological safety - "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" - most people will wait until a critical mass has changed behavior before making a change themselves.

How many people have to say “yes”?

After the question there was an awkward pause. The CEO replied that it was better in this case not to ask permission. "You should just do it,” he said, explaining that the personal benefits were worth the risk. 

The head of the Works Council was also there, and he pointed out that even in the most stringent environments, employees had times when they could choose for themselves what to do. “If your boss doesn’t like what you’re trying, do it on your lunch hour, or outside of work.” 

The audience didn’t seem satisfied. They wanted to do things differently, but they felt stuck. As happy as they were with visible support from top management, they knew the CEO wouldn’t be there if their boss doled out consequences.

The permission you’ve been waiting for

One way out of this conundrum is for you to take a series of small steps rather than a big leap. There’s plenty of research to show that even small changes to tasks, relationships, and perceptions can make you happier and more effective. (It’s call “job crafting” and you can read more about it here.)

You may have to experience it for yourself before you believe it, like my friend Stefan who, after 12 weeks in a WOL Circle, said this:

"I now realize there are things - tasks and interests - that bring me joy and satisfaction besides my original job but are still in a business context. I guess my next goal will be concerned with job crafting... ;-) " 

Every day you have some control over who you interact with and what you do. Every day you have complete control over how you interact with others and how you approach the work you need to do. 

You can choose to experiment in small ways at work, to learn and explore more, to relate to others with generosity and kindness, to actively look for purpose and meaning in what you do. You can be a leader in one of the most important ways possible - by example.

For that, the only person you’ll need permission from is you. 

 

The skill that every startup needs (but most don’t have)

Even if you don’t think of yourself as an entrepreneur, you may well be a startup or work with others who qualify for the label. By “startup,” I mean any individual or group that wants to turn an idea into something more than that.

Maybe you work in a big company and want to contribute or develop in some new way. Maybe you’re participating in an innovation program of some kind. Or maybe you're looking to do something on your own.

A skill you’ll need is the ability to build a purposeful network. Here are two reasons why that skill's important, and one way you can get better at it.

Bringing an idea to life

It’s clear that most innovations aren’t the result of lone inventors in garages. They’re the result of connections - between people and ideas - that result in new combinations. Steven Johnson captured this in Where Good Ideas Come From, which surveyed innovations over hundreds of years:

“If you look at history, innovation comes from creating environments where ideas can connect. Innovative environments… expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts.”

For those of you working in large companies, please note that he didn’t write “Innovation comes from the best Powerpoint slides pitched to judges in the innovation program.” You don’t hide your idea until the day of some competition. Instead, as Eric Ries described so well in Lean Startup, you share your ideas and related work early on; you actively solicit feedback that helps you refine and improve upon it; and then you iterate. Along the way, you build relationships with people that can help you in some way, whether it’s with technology, financing, usability, or anything else you might need.

That’s how you bring your idea to life. It’s only after you have a viable prototype that you may want to approach people for funding, permission, or other resources - if you need it.

 The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

Building a tribe around an idea

Now imagine your idea has been selected or you’ve somehow brought it to the successful prototype stage. At this point you have a different challenge: getting attention. After all, if not enough people know or care about your work, you won’t be able to reach the audience you want to reach, or make the difference you want to make. 

Today, most successful startups don’t rely on traditional marketing to get attention because it’s too expensive and inefficient. Instead, they try to build communities around their idea.

Using the metaphor from Derek Sivers’ popular TED talk, “How to build a movement” (a great way to spend 3 minutes), modern startups actively look to find “their second and third dancers” - early adopters who embrace the idea - by making their offering visible and accessible. Then they equip, empower, and connect those who care about their work to spread the word for them, all the while getting access to valuable feedback, knowledge, and new opportunities. 

An impassioned tribe, connected to an idea and to each other, has much more power than any lone inventor. 

How to teach yourself & others

Building a purposeful network isn’t just an extra task or a nice thing to have. It’s fundamental to the innovation process. And, importantly, it's a skill anyone can develop.

One way to do it, to learn by actually building relationships that matter, is through a Working Out Loud Circle. If your company is trying to increase innovation, you can integrate WOL Circles into your formal programs or corporate learning academy. If you’re on your own, you can form a Circle yourself to deepen relationships with people related to your idea. (You can find Circle members in the WOL groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.) 

Anyone can have an idea. It takes a network to bring your idea to life, and bring it to the world.

Lessons from my mother

Growing up, my mother responded to certain situations with cliches that have stuck with me.

When I would complain about a friend, she'd chide me with, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” When I would argue with my brother, she’d remind me, “You get more with honey than with vinegar.”

Looking back, she taught me many things. She showed me that generosity was about much more than money. That being social meant, most of all, being genuinely curious about other people. That homemade food has the power to bring people together and make them happy.

But one of the most valuable lessons was one she never learned herself.

When she was 76, she was dying from diabetes and complications from a broken hip. There was a family reunion in Pennsylvania, and we traveled two hours by ambulance to the great surprise of everyone who never expected she could make the trip. There were many tears and many photos. 

When we showed the pictures to my mother, the first thing she said was, “I hate the way I look in photos.” I couldn't believe it. I thought to myself, You’re 76, dying, and you’re still worried about how you look in a photo? When does it stop?

Yet, as my mother would say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” I could recognize in myself the same negative self-image and petty self-loathing. When does it stop? Maybe never.

I thought of how tiring it must have been for her to have carried that baggage around for seven decades. And I resolved then and there to try and take myself less seriously, to drop my own baggage and practice walking more lightly through life. 

For this and all of her lessons, I’m grateful. Every time I smile for a photo, or bake cookies, or talk to a stranger in the elevator, I think of her. 

 Dancing at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.

Dancing at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.

“What brought you here?”

In the late 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn was at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and he thought the mindfulness practices he’d been experimenting with could help patients there. 

This was viewed with skepticism and even derision, but he persisted, starting in conference rooms with small groups of people. He called his eight-week program the “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic” or MBSR. The focus on clinical benefits in a hospital setting helped to normalize what was then an exotic set of practices unsupported by science. 

40 years laters, there are MBSR instructors in more than 30 countries, and almost 80% of medical schools are involved in some kind of mindfulness training or research. 

When someone first entered the clinic, Kabat-Zinn began by asking them, “What brought you here?” Then he listened.

“I learned from this listening that our patients came to the Stress Reduction Clinic for a lot of different reasons that, in the end, were really just one reason: to be whole again, to recapture a spark they once felt they had, or felt they never had but always wanted.”

Most people were looking for something they weren’t getting - from their doctor or from life - and had decided they wanted to take some steps for themselves. 

“They came because they wanted to take charge in their own lives….
They came because some aspect of their lives wasn’t working for them anymore…
And perhaps, above all, they came, and stayed, because we somehow managed to create an atmosphere in the room that invited a deep and open-hearted listening, an atmosphere that the participants could recognize as benign, empathic, respectful, and accepting. That kind of feeling tone, unfortunately, can be an all-too-rare experience.”

The MBSR Program is a good model for what WOL can accomplish, both in how it normalized basic human practices that help individuals realize more of their potential, and how it scaled the changes. I included the question as the first exercise in Week 1 of a Working Out Loud Circle.

As with MBSR, people join WOL Circles for all sorts of reasons. They want to be more effective, accomplish a goal, explore a topic, earn access to new opportunities. But the underlying reason is often a sense that there could and should be more to work and life, “to recapture a spark they once felt they had, or felt they never had but always wanted.”

Since you’re reading this, you’re interested in WOL for some reason. What is it? What brought you here?

“The bird which doesn’t hide itself gets shot” 

Next week, I’ll deliver a talk and workshop in Beijing, and it will be my first time there. A month later, I’ll go to Shanghai for a different company, and be part of a public Working Out Loud event on June 23rd. A woman who grew up in China commented about it on LinkedIn.

“I am curious how the WOL culture goes with Chinese culture. I was told to be “modest” when I was a kid - don’t show it even if you are good... And we have sayings like “the bird which doesn’t hide itself gets shot”.

That saying stuck in my memory. There are other translations, and there are similar expressions in other countries. Sometimes it’s "the shot hits the bird that pokes its head out” (枪打出头鸟) or “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (出る釘は打たれる). Common interpretations are that conformity is valued over individuality, and that being open is somehow inappropriate or risky. ”Standing out invites criticism."

My first reaction to her comment was that it's your intention that matters. Indeed, it makes all the difference.

“Expressions like those are why WOL emphasizes the need to lead with generosity, to frame your work as a contribution that might help others.”

The “WOL culture” isn’t about trying to stand out or show how remarkable you are, but about being helpful, about leading with generosity as a way to build authentic relationships. If it feels fake or isn’t offered as a contribution, it isn’t WOL.  A post on Twitter yesterday highlighted this different:

“I expected #WOL to be all self promotion: look at me, how to get attention for what you are working on. [Instead] the focus was on was being empathetic, encouraging and helping others. Complete polar opposite.”

In China, WOL may not be as foreign as one might think. For example, they already embrace the concept of guanxi (关系),  "a central idea in Chinese society” that's related to “personalized social networks of influence…[in which] there is an emphasis on implicit mutual obligations, reciprocity, and trust.” Working Out Loud can be a way to extend this idea, making the networks even more open, and the relationships based more on empathy and giving freely than on obligation. As another Chinese expression says, "If you always give, you will always have.” (如果你总是给你永远拥有)

Are there differences between cultures? Yes. Is China different than Europe or the US? Yes. But “culture” comprises a wide range of human behaviors across huge numbers of people, and 1.3 billion people don’t fit comfortably into a single box. We have much more in common than the labels and expressions might lead us to believe, including our capacity for generosity and our need to build meaningful connections.

I’m looking forward to my visit.

Waiting

As I approach the checkout lines at the supermarket, I quickly scan to see which one will be shortest. I count the number of people, of course, but also consider the items in each cart. I carefully scrutinize the cashier and even the customers. Will they require a delivery service? Do they have young children? These things can slow down the process.

I narrow it down to two alternatives, and then, confidently, I make my choice: register 11.

Within seconds, though, I sense something is wrong. There’s a hint of frustration on the face of the customer at the front. The cashier, with a disturbing calmness, is methodically packing her bags in slow motion. I consider switching lines but it is already too late as other lines have grown longer. 

A minute passes. Then another. My hand reaches for my phone, a salve for my restlessness, but I try to resist as I’ve been wanting to use my phone less. I look at the magazine covers instead, and the odd array of other items. I wonder about who chooses what to put there, and who buys them. More minutes pass.

I feel trapped. I advise the people behind me to pick another line, which they do. They smile, first with gratitude and later with a hint of embarrassment as they leave the store while I am still waiting.  

My sense of irritation increases. I want to find someone to blame! I want to commiserate with other customers! Isn’t this terrible?! Then I remember I have a book in my knapsack. Mindfulness on the Go. I take it out and open it to the place I had marked. The next chapter is titled, “Waiting.”

“Any time you find yourself waiting…take this as an opportunity to practice mindfulness.”

It seems the universe has a sense of humor, so I smile for the first time in 10 minutes and keep reading. It seems that waiting has presented me with an opportunity.

“As you undertake this practice, you learn to recognize early the body changes that accompany impending negative thoughts and emotions such as impatience about having to wait, or anger about “that idiot” ahead of us in the checkout line. Each time we are able to stop and not allow a negative mind-state to come to fruition (say, getting irritated at the traffic or angry at the slow cashier), we are erasing a habitual and unwholesome pattern of the heart/mind.”

My irritation melts. My judgment of the cashier - What is wrong with this guy? What is his problem? - is replaced with empathy. What if I had that job? I’d be even slower! I think, “Maybe he’s new, or had a bad day, or is disabled." I imagine what it would be like, to do a job surrounded by visibly annoyed customers, and I’m ashamed.

Eventually it’s my turn. I offer to pack the bags as a way to help out and move things along. By now, my negative feelings have been replaced with gratitude, and I see how even a long wait can be a teacher.

The next time you approach one of those seemingly empty spaces in your day, what will you fill it with? Will your habits take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Or will you try to take a step in a different direction?

“If we don’t let the cart of the mind keep running down the same deep ruts, down the same old hill, into the same old swamp, eventually the ruts will fill up. Eventually our habitual states of irritation and frustration over something like waiting will dissolve. It take times, but it works. And it’s worth it, as everyone around us will benefit.”

The courage to connect

If only she could see what I see.

We don’t know each other. But even a quick scan made it clear that she’s highly-skilled, has done interesting and relevant work in a company I admire, and is in a location I enjoy visiting and working in.

Her first email to me was lovely and generous. She had been following me and wrote to offer support and assistance - for free - just because she believes in what I'm doing.

Yet she almost didn’t send that message.

“I just finished part 1 of your book which provided me with the courage to reach out to you.”

I re-read that line several times. "The courage to reach out." It struck me that she has so much to contribute and was offering it in such a nice way, and yet she felt constrained, held back by a fear of some kind. I thanked her and shared what I was thinking.

“I'm thrilled that you took the time to write your note which was both kind and generous. Isn't it fascinating that we hold back even when we have such gifts to offer? If we could change that mindset and unlock more such gifts, the world and workplace would be better for everyone.”

We continued our email exchange (she’s also witty and a good writer), and I look forward to speaking with her about her work and to ask for her ideas and opinions about mine. Given her experience, I can easily imagine a wide range of collaboration opportunities. 

What about you? Is there something holding you back from reaching out to someone? Something preventing you from making the contributions and connections you want to make?

There are so many people who could benefit from all you have to offer. Developing the courage to share it just takes practice

 Sketch by Janine Kirchhof -  janinekirchhof.com  &  @ THE_HR_GIRL

Sketch by Janine Kirchhof - janinekirchhof.com@THE_HR_GIRL

The life & death of Quality Circles (and a more modern way to implement them)

By the time I first heard of a Quality Circle, the idea was already almost 30 years old. It’s “a group of workers who do the same or similar work, who meet regularly to identify, analyze and solve work-related problems.” I was in my twenties at the time, doing research for my first book, and I believed these Circles could make a huge difference.

The method was introduced in the 1960s by Professor Kaoru Ishikawa. By the late 1970s, more than 10 million Japanese workers were in Circles. More recently, China is reported to have formed over 20 million Circles in a a range of industries.

But in the US, at least, “quality circles are almost universally consigned to the dustbin of management techniques.”

Why? What can we do to make a good idea even better?

Out of the Crisis

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer of the quality management movement, was one of my early heroes when it came to work. His management philosophy wasn’t just for managers, but for everyone. Remarkably, his 14 principles put people at the center of quality and statistical process control.

“8. Drive out fear. 
12. Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.
13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.”

When Out of the Crisis was published, Deming was already in his 80s. He referenced Quality Control Circles (or QC-Circles) several times. Though he was familiar with their success in Japan, he had also seen failed implementations in the US, and he was not optimistic about their success there.

“The idea has appeal. The production worker can tell us a lot about what is wrong and how improvements can be made: why not tap into the source of information and help?
[But] a QC-Circle can thrive only if the management will take action on the recommendations of the Circle. Many QC-Circles are, I fear, management’s hope for a lazy way out.”

Do you treat them as human beings? Or not?

Something went wrong. QC Circles were designed to be a way for people to actively take pride in their work by having a voice in making it better. But Circles often became a management tool focused on cutting costs (and jobs), and on finding fault. 

In his book, Deming excerpted a speech from Dr. Akira Ishikawa (who became president of Texas Instruments in Japan) about why Circles worked in Japan but not in the US.

“In the U.S., a QC-Circle is normally organized as a formal staff organization, wheres a QC-Circle in Japan is an informal group of workers. A manager in Japan serves as an advisor or consultant. In the U.S., a manager of production, to get rid of the job, appoints facilitators for Quality of Work Life, Employee Involvement, Employee Participation, QC-Circles, all of which disintegrate. 
The second contrast is the selection of the theme for a meeting and the way in which the meeting is guided. In the U.S., the selection of a theme or project and how to proceed on it are proposed by a manager. In contrast, in Japan, the things are decided by the initiative of the member-workers.
The third feature is the difference in hours for a meeting. A meeting in the U.S. is held within working hours. A meeting in Japan may be held during working hours, during the lunch period, or after working hours.
In the U.S., monetary reward for a suggestion goes to the individual. In Japan, the benefit is distributed to all employees. Recognition of group achievement supersedes monetary benefit to the individual.”

These aren’t just procedural or technical differences. They’re fundamental. The way that Circles are implemented can determine whether or not employees tap into their innate needs for control, competence, and connection. 

“One Japanese plant manager who turned an unproductive U.S. factory into a profitable venture in less than three months told me: ‘It is simple. You treat American workers as human beings with ordinary needs and values. They react like human beings.’
Once the superficial, adversarial relationship between managers and workers is eliminated, they are more likely to pull together during difficult times and to defend their common interest in the firm’s health. Without a cultural revolution in management, quality control circles will not produce the desired effects in America.”

“WOL for Quality”

When Deming observed Quality Circles, it was well before enterprise social networks, before 4 billion people were using the Internet, before modern research on why people do what they do. Today, it’s easier than ever for employees in any environment to make their ideas visible, to tap into what others in the company know, and to connect and collaborate with them. 

One experiment I plan to work on is to apply the basic elements of WOL Circles - a voluntary, self-organized, safe and confidential space using structured guides - to making work better in a wider range of environments. Call it “WOL for Manufacturing” or “WOL for Hospitals” or even “WOL in the Classroom.”

To suit each specific kind of environment, I would adapt the guides to include different ways for Circles to form and interact, different contributions to make, and different technologies for making them. If a company is already spreading WOL Circles, then such an experiment would be a natural extension, a way to include people in non-office environments.

Perhaps, instead of waiting for “the cultural revolution in management” that Deming thought was necessary, we can take action now. Perhaps we finally have the tools and practices we need to create grassroots movements that matter, that can show management what’s possible and inspire them to enable broader institutional changes.