If it feels like you’re trying to get something in return

He felt uneasy about Working Out Loud. After a few weeks in a WOL Circle at work, he felt like he was trying to win people over by doing something for them, and it seemed wrong. So he posted his concern on his company’s intranet, along with a question.

“My understanding of Working Out Loud is that I should contribute and ‘do good’ without the idea of getting things in return….On the other hand, I consciously create a relationship list where I collect the names of certain people who can help me with achieving my personal goal. Then I specifically target them with my ‘contribution’ - attention, support, whatever it may be. Effectively, I am trying to get their support by doing them favors.
What am I missing?”
If it feels wrong.jpg

Some responses

His colleagues responded with their own opinions and experiences, and the person managing the community shared the discussion with me. Some responded that they don’t expect anything in return from a particular individual, and yet believed that, across their entire network, there would naturally be a benefit to them. Others shared how the listing of names helped them to go far beyond the individuals they already knew in a purposeful way, and gave them access to learning they didn’t have before. One woman said she didn’t see it as currying favor with people but rather  “improving the odds” or “creating one’s luck.”

Everyone agreed that intention mattered, that the core principle was to offer things without expectations. I had the chance to send in my own reply.

"If WOL ever feels like you're ‘targeting’ people or trying to manipulate them into reciprocating, you should stop. That's not the intention nor is it a healthy, sustainable practice.
Think of your relationship list not as a set of targets but as people who can help you explore. You're not doing something TO them but rather being OPEN TO them, to their work and ideas and more. 
Each person is like a door. The greater the sense of trust and relatedness, the more that door may open, giving both of you greater access to each other's knowledge, resources, and other people. Now, if a particular door never opens, if a person never responds or you never develop any sense of relatedness, that's okay. Your contributions, if offered in a positive, empathetic way without expectations, can still benefit them (in ways you may never know). As you contribute to more people on your list, you simply increase the chances that you'll develop genuine trust & relatedness with some of them.”

And another question…

As the discussion unfolded, the topic shifted to the relationship list. After all, he wondered, if you’re offering things without expectations, why do you need a list? I replied, “If the relationship list makes the practice feel artificial, don’t use it.” 

The reason I put the relationship list in Week 1 of a Circle is because it helps you attune your attention, opening you up to people (and thus ideas, resources, and more) related to your goal. Right from the beginning, that simple act can help you see things you may have never noticed before. But if I’ve been working on a goal for a long time, or if I find the list to be a barrier of some kind, I may stop maintaining it. 

A practice like any other

Though there is a reason for each of the exercises in a WOL Circle, what’s more important is whether or not you find the exercise to be helpful. I added:

“You can think of your initial relationship list as “scaffolding” that helps you set up your practice. Eventually, you may no longer need it if you feel your practice can stand on its own.”

And that’s true for much of Working Out Loud. Like any practice, there are guides and traditions and even rules, but those are really just meant to help you get started. There is no one right way. Rather, the best practice is the one that’s right for you at a particular time, one you discover and adapt through practice, feedback, and...questions.

“Like a pebble in a pond”

“Each contribution you make,” I’ll often tell an audience, “is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with more people and possibilities.”

It sounds a bit lofty, doesn’t it? Like an exaggeration? Here’s an example of what I mean.

A simple contribution

After reading Working Out Loud, Andrea could have quietly put the book on the shelf, but instead she offered public appreciation on LinkedIn and asked a simple question

“Is there anyone in the Munich area who is interested in forming a local #wol circle?”

Though I didn’t know Andrea, I was notified of her post because she mentioned me in it. So I offered some ways she could find potential Circle members and added that, by coincidence, I would be in her city in a few weeks.

“Fabelhaft! :-) One way to find Circle members is to ask in the WOL groups on Facebook or LinkedIn. There are many WOL practitioners in Munich. I'll be there myself in 2 weeks!”

One step unlocks another

Andrea’s short post didn’t exactly go viral, but it did draw a reaction from people in a few dozen companies and at least half a dozen countries. One of the comments, from someone who neither Andrea nor I knew,  said he would also be in Munich and perhaps we could meet. That led to a group message with a growing number of people. Soon, we had a date, time, and place to meet for dinner

There were 12 of us, and we had fun discovering connections between each of us. What motivated each person to attend? Did they know anyone else there? How did they even hear about WOL?

If that was all that happened, it would be enough, and Andrea summed it up nicely in a post.

“12 people from different companies with various backgrounds- and one common denominator: an interest in working out loud...It was a pleasure to see you all today! I feel enriched by your stories and I hope to meet you again in a circle, or otherwise :-)”

More people and possibilities

But the ripples kept spreading (and keep spreading). For example, six of the people there were from Airbus. Several of them brought a book, inscribed by their manager who, unbeknownst to me, was giving it to her team members. As we talked, we discovered other connections with Airbus in France, and the team resolved to start their own WOL Circles inside the company.

Stranger still, the woman I sat next, Gleyce, was already part of a group led by someone in Brazil working to translate the Circle Guides into Portuguese. The web of connections and coincidences seemed to grow, and we all remarked on how it all began with a simple post.

"Airbus starting to Working Out Loud - Elina Golke, Clotilde Martin, John Stepper, Gleyce Kastl Lima, Philipp Rathjen, Bernd Schmid" 

"Airbus starting to Working Out Loud - Elina Golke, Clotilde Martin, John Stepper, Gleyce Kastl Lima, Philipp Rathjen, Bernd Schmid" 

Pebbles and butterflies

In Week 10 of the Circle Guides, there’s a contribution checklist to help people become more systematic about what they have to offer. Your gift can be as simple as attention or appreciation, or it can be making your work visible: sharing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, resources and people that have helped you, things you’ve learned, questions you have, and more.

When I write posts like the one you’re reading now, most of the readers are people I don’t know, and aren't even connected to me, and the ripples take me and my work to some surprising places. Just this week I got a note from the principal of a school in Austria who wants to use WOL to help teachers with their professional development. It's a topic my wife and I are both interested in, and that I wrote about almost four years ago, and the Austrian principal and I agreed on an experiment we'll do together in a few weeks.

How do such things happen? And how can you make them happen more often?

In chaos theory, as a way to demonstrate that small changes can have dramatic and unpredictable consequences, it's said that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can affect the weather in New York City.

What if, like Andrea, you unleashed your own butterflies each day, offering contributions without expectations? What kind of changes could you make possible, for yourself and for others?

Working Out Loud: How will it scale?

“Are you ready for this?” she asked us. We were talking with two people from HR who were planning to accelerate the spread of Working Out Loud. They had been involved in an important culture change program for their company, and saw WOL as a way to help employees experience the new way of working while developing key skills.

The question of “How will it scale?” will be asked more often as WOL appears on corporate press releases and becomes a standard development method in more organizations.

Here are four ways to answer that question. If you want more information or have feedback about any of these, please leave a comment on this post or send me email

Internal network of WOL Mentors

WOL Circles are often introduced into a company by a single person. Over time, as Circles spread, people emerge who want to do more, and a “co-creation team” of six to twelve people forms. They help organize events, create materials, and offer lightweight support for Circles who have questions or challenges. 

To scale this across locations and divisions, it helps to augment that co-creation team with a network of employees who receive extra training on how to support and spread WOL Circles. This is a familiar “train the trainer” approach, and fits neatly into existing programs that may already have ambassadors or champions or advocates of some kind. WOL is simply another skill they develop.

First group of certified WOL Mentors at Daimler & Bosch

First group of certified WOL Mentors at Daimler & Bosch

Licensed WOL Partners

Over the past year, I’ve traveled to many companies to help them launch Circles with an event and workshop. To see people embrace WOL and then take steps to put it into practice is one of the most fulfilling things I do. But relying on one person to do this makes me a bottleneck. Besides, what if they want the event in another language, or in a place I can’t travel to? 

I am happy to announce the first two licensed partners: Sabine Kluge of Kluge Consulting in Berlin, and Mara Tolja of Workwell Consulting in Auckland. They’re long-time WOL practitioners, and I’ve worked side-by-side on WOL programs with both of them. (Mara formed the first WOL Circle in London. Sabine and I delivered a training program together for WOL Mentors just last week.) Sabine and Mara are trusted friends as well as highly-skilled, creative individuals. I’ve learned a lot from them and enjoy working with them - a wonderful combination. 

Sabine Kluge & Mara Tolja

Sabine Kluge & Mara Tolja

Products that make it easier to practice independently

Another way to scale the WOL movement is to keep making it easier to form a WOL Circle and have a good and useful experience. There’s a pipeline of products under development that should help, including a video coaching series, a Circle Journal, Circle Guides in more languages, and a 2nd edition of the book.

WOL adaptations

The first three ways to scale are focused on making it easier to spread and support WOL Circles. But there are some employees for whom Circles might not be an appropriate development environment. That could include executives who find the idea of a Circle to be threatening instead of a safe and confidential space, or who simply can’t make the time for it. It might include employees who work in an environment that doesn’t lend itself to the current WOL Circle format (e.g., a factory, a hospital).

To reach those people and enable them to experience (at least some of) the benefits of WOL will require an adaptation of the method. WOL for Leaders, for example, is a new program that’s now in three companies. WOL for Manufacturing is something I’m looking to pilot later this year. 

To be continued…

The aspiration of the WOL movement, our collective mission, is to improve how people relate to themselves, to each other, and to the work they do. So far, we’ve reached thousands of people in almost 50 countries, and that’s amazing. It inspires me to wonder how we can reach a few million people and still keep the practice consistent and coherent. We have a long way to go, and these four ways to scale are steps in that direction.

Working Out Loud in Brazil

I haven’t met Tiago Caldas yet. We haven’t even spoken on the phone. But after I gave a talk at his company in Germany last September, I noticed him join the WOL community from Brazil, form a WOL Circle, connect with people around the world, and actively promote WOL. Most recently (and incredibly), he organized a group to translate the Circle Guides into Portuguese.

I asked him via email why a manager in a global engineering company would do all of this, and he sent me a short blog post I said I would share with you. In short, WOL helped him and he thought it would help others, so he’s taking action to make that possible. 

I’ll speak to him for the first time in two weeks about ways to spread WOL in Brazil. I can’t wait to thank him.

Tiago Caldas with some of his WOL Circle members in Brazil

Tiago Caldas with some of his WOL Circle members in Brazil

 

Working Out Loud: a kind of dynamite for Brazilians’ improvement!

Everybody knows that we Brazilians are so open and we love relationships. We like to be connected with colleagues, friends, and family and there are no barriers for that. Five minutes are enough to invite someone for a barbecue, party, or to drink something together.

Therefore, sharing is in our blood! We are a mix of every kind of culture: Germans, Italians, Japanese, Americans, Indians, etc. This is also something that help us to be so flexible in dealing with so different characteristics and personalities.

So, why does Working Out Loud matter for Brazilians? 

I used dynamite in the title because in my opinion the advantage we Brazilians have in establishing relationships connected with an organized way to do that is extremely powerful. We can show our work and improve our networks at the same time.

The elements of Working Out Loud are real for us:

  • Relationships: We truly enjoy being together.
  • Generosity: Facing so many crises and difficulties, we learned to open our hearts and help each other.
  • Visible work: We like to talk and share! But we need to improve how we do it, and the 12 steps are a powerful tool.
  • Purposeful discovery: The heart moves us. We need motivation to discover what really touches us.
  • Growth mindset: We love life, and exploring more and more is our passion.

The topics above are what is moving me and I strongly believe that this concept is a powerful tool for Brazilians and other Latin Americans to develop themselves and use their natural abilities to make a difference in the digital world. This is why we are investing our time to translate the WOL Circle Guides into Portuguese, and a community of enthusiastic people will be involved in this challenge. (And I pray that as fast as possible we can have the book also translated to Portuguese!)

“Thank you for saying that"

It was such a simple exchange and yet it left an impression on me. I was sitting in a crowded food court, working on my laptop. It was lunchtime, and there was the usual din of people eating, laughing, shuffling chairs.. Amidst all the office workers, I noticed someone on the maintenance staff wiping down tables after people left, getting them ready for the next group.

When he cleaned the table next to me, I offered my appreciation for what he was doing. He nodded, smiled awkwardly, and kept wiping the table. A few seconds later, he walked by me, leaned in, eyes averted, and quietly said "Thank you for saying that."

I think it was the earnestness in his voice that struck me. It was as if my simple comment was something especially valuable to him, something rare.

Hudson Eats: A local food hall & my sometimes office 

Hudson Eats: A local food hall & my sometimes office 

A simple test (and the worst blog title ever)

Almost two years ago, I wrote a blog post with the odd title of “The Corporate Bathroom Test.” I wanted to describe how exchanges like the one I had in the food court could be part of your Working Out Loud practice, helping you “gradually build a capability and a mindset of deepening relationships through generosity.”

“Some of the most powerful gifts you have to offer - contributions that are universally valued - are recognition and appreciation. The point of this post is that even mundane interactions are opportunities to practice offering these gifts…Each time you do it you gain subtle insights into your motivations and reactions.
Today, as you meet someone you might normally pass by, say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ Be mindful of how that makes you feel. Watch how it makes the other person feel.”

Sparks of joy

Since I wrote that, I've continued practicing offering appreciation to people throughout the day. I’m careful to do it without expectations of a reply, and I try to be mindful that they’re busy and may not be in the mood to talk. (After all, I’ve taken The Generosity Test too.) Usually, it's people I notice working - restaurant workers, landscapers, crossing guards. It's a way of saying “I see you and I appreciate what you're doing.”

A woman serving food at a corporate event whispered, “You are very kind” simply because I thanked her and offered to help her move a table. When I asked a flight attendant how she was doing, she was genuinely surprised at the question. “Thank you for asking,” she said. “That’s very nice of you.” A taxi driver and I had a long talk about his home country of the Dominican Republic, and we shook hands after the ride.

The truth is I’m not especially kind or generous. I just practice paying attention to people around me, putting myself in their shoes for a moment, and offering sincere appreciation. Many people are hungry for such a gift, and in return I get sparks of human connection - even joy - throughout my day. “The Corporate Bathroom Test” is now an additional exercise in Week 2 of the WOL Circle Guides. I hope you’ll try it.

“The more you practice, the more comfortable you become offering small gifts in a variety of circumstances till, over time, it becomes a habit that makes you happier and more effective.”

 

A lifeboat in a sea of change

At the beginning of this year, I got a note from a woman whose department was undergoing a “transformation.” It’s a word I come across in every company I visit. While most people I meet may recognize the need for some kind of change, almost no one likes the process, or the uncertainty that comes with it. 

She wrote to say that she was in Week 6 of a Working Out Loud Circle, and that her “WOL family gave her stability." Despite anxiety related to the transformation, she was getting new energy from her network each day while she made progress toward her goal.

I wrote back:

“There are many times when I worked in a big company when my network was like "a lifeboat in a sea of change" (a good title for a blog post :-)) 
At first it was just a relief to interact with nice people at the firm amidst the fear and defensiveness that came along with "transformation." Over time, it came to be a source of ideas and ultimately a new career.”

A Circle offers you a safe, confidential space where you can work on your goals and your development without worrying about judgment or competition. For me, the relationships I developed turned out to be a source of strength in addition to a source of ideas and feedback. They gave me the perspective to see things clearly, and the confidence and encouragement to take action.

If you’re facing a change in your work or life, do you have a lifeboat? Who’s in it?

A lifeboat in a sea of change.jpg

Happy New Year! Announcing WOL Circle Guides v4.5 

In a New Year’s post five years ago, I wrote that one of the best resolutions you could make is to invest in yourself, to give yourself the time and the space - the permission - to develop relationships and skills that matter.  

Since then, I’ve been developing Working Out Loud Circles as a method for doing that, and Circles have spread to over 40 countries. Today, I’m publishing a new and improved version of the WOL Circle Guides to make the method even easier and more effective. 

What’s new?

Thanks to the feedback from people who have already been in a Circle, I’ve been able to refine the guides and make this version the best one so far.  The biggest changes include moving the exercises related to habit development earlier in the process, providing better examples, and updating several of the exercises and additional reading. There are also improvements to the flow, the writing, and the formatting. 

Despite the changes, Circles already in progress should be able to use the new guides right away. Also, a German translation should be ready over the next few weeks.

Customizing WOL Circles for your organization

The WOL Circle Guides are free, and are issued under a license called the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.  (It means you can use the material and share it as-is, but you can’t change it or offer it as part of any for-fee product or service without explicit written permission.) Being free makes it easy for individuals and organizations to experiment and experience the benefits for themselves. Yet as Circles spread in an organization, or as the method is integrated into existing programs like on-boarding and talent development, many organizations want to tailor the guides.

Now there’s an additional license, available for a fixed fee, that allows you to do this. In the past year, I've worked with customers who want to include their own goals, technology, examples, and brand into the guides. So if, say, you’re using WOL Circles to help new joiners be more connected and productive, custom guides can make it easy for those new employees to learn your digital tools while they discover people and content related to their job. If you’re interested in customizing the guides, contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com.

Other ways to make it easier

In addition to upgrading the Circle Guides, I’m working on a WOL Video Coaching Series and Circle Journal that will be available in the coming months. The video series gives you convenient access to all that’s in the guides plus coaching tips to help ensure you make progress. The Journal gives you a single place to do the exercises and capture your learning throughout the process, making it easier to reflect on how far you’ve come.

I welcome and appreciate your feedback on any of these materials and ideas, and will use it to keep improving the method. I hope you join a Circle this year. Here’s some gentle encouragement from another New Year's resolution post I wrote two years ago called “This Year I Will…”

“One way to make a difference this year is to form a Working Out Loud Circle. I’m getting more and more mail from people about how their Circle empowered them, liberated them. Just this week, a woman told me her circle "had an enormous impact on my life.”
Yet it’s such a simple process. You write down a goal, share it with a small trusted group, and take a few steps over 12 weeks to build relationships with people who can help you.
Deciding to form a Circle might just be the best New Year’s resolution you ever made. What’s holding you back that you might be able to change?
Where might you go?"
Happy 2018.jpg

Highlights (and lowlights) from 2017

I’ll head home tomorrow from Germany. This was my 8th trip. (Or was it my 9th?) It’s a good time to reflect on what has gone well this year, and what I can learn from the setbacks.

The best moments

The most remarkable moments are when I hear other people talk about Working Out Loud. Sometimes they’re telling an audience about the benefits they’ve seen for themselves and colleagues. Sometimes they’re sharing a personal story with me, of how a simple practice seemed to unlock something inside them.

There were more of these moments as the year went by. Just last week there was the first public WOL conference, organized by eight companies in Germany, were 100+ people from 48 companies convened to spread the practice. At a dinner the night before, the energy was so positive that people described it as “a reunion” and “like coming home.” 

Two days earlier there was a WOLCON at Bosch, where individuals from all levels - including the board - came together to experience and spread WOL. People described their personal stories in a way that was emotional and touching. Seeing executive enthusiasm for what started as a grassroots movement made me even more confident that we can reach many more people.

One highlight I watched unfold remotely via social media. It was when eight companies - the WOL Community of Practice - attended an HR Excellence awards ceremony in Berlin. They had applied as a group. There were screams and hugs when they won. It was the first time such an award was given to a group like this.

These are just the recent highlights. The WOL movement is growing, with more people starting grassroots movements in their companies, and more of those companies embracing those movements and helping them grow faster.

The failures

My wife has been telling me, “You should share your challenges more,” and she’s right (as usual). Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Some talks don’t lead to much change at all
  • My first attempts at a video series were (paraphrasing a friend) “awful.” 
  • My second and third attempts were only marginally better.
  • I’m more than a year late on writing the 2nd edition. 
  • I don’t ask for help when I should.
  • When I did ask for help it sometimes went horribly wrong.
  • I’m constantly aware of the gap between what I need to do and what I’m comfortable doing.
  • The gap seems to be growing. 

I expect this list will grow considerably next year. I’m still learning how to scale the WOL movement while making a sustainable living. I’m still learning how to surf the uncertainty and enjoy it rather than merely holding on in tight-jawed determination. 

Looking ahead

Last week, I posted from the WOL conference about the people there making a difference, and someone asked via Twitter, “What difference?” While I was pondering my reply, a woman responded: 

“That day made a huge difference for me, because I’ve deepened relationships, built new ones, took away inspiration…a lot of helpful tips I can integrate into my daily work. Second I strongly believe this can make a difference for my environment, people around me, because I’ll share all of this if people/environment are interested. And if just one person will benefit from it.... it’s worth it.”

I'm mindful that, while there are some encouraging results & stories, it's really early. We have a lot of work to do and a long way to go if we want to "make the difference" we would all love to make. The woman on Twitter remarked:

“This is already happening ... as you know. We’ve just got to keep going.”

It was a good year, and a good start. Together, we keep going.

What happened to “Working” in the last 45 years

I vaguely remember when Working came out. It was 1972. I was 8 years old. Calculators were becoming popular, and people were just starting to talk about computers.

The subtitle of the book is “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” It’s based on over 100 interviews with people in a wide range of jobs across the US - from gravedigger to TV executive, and consists almost entirely of the words of those people. (You can also listen to the original audio recordings.)

Despite all of the changes since those interviews over four decades ago years ago, many of the themes remain the same. Perhaps primarily, there was the need to make a difference, a search for meaning.

“I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us…have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
“You know you’re not doing anything, not doing a hell of a lot for anyone. Your job doesn’t mean anything. Because you’re just a little machine. A monkey could do what I do . It’s really unfair to ask someone to do that.”
“A man’s life is his work. You see humanity in a chair. It was made by some man’s hand. There’s artistry in that, and that’s what makes mankind happier. You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.”

Many people expressed the feeling of not being treated or respected as a full human being, 

“That’s the thing you get in any business. They never talk about personal feelings. They let you know that people are of no consequence.”
“They call us professional people but they talk to us as very young, childishly. They check on us all the time.”
“These big corporations are gonna keep on growing and the people become less and less. The human being doesn’t count any more.”

Even back then, there was an awareness of the threat of technology, of dehumanization.

“You won’t know their names…You have a number - mine’s 407. You’re just an instrument.”
“It was almost like a production line. We adjusted to the machine. The last three or four years were horrible. The computer had arrived….I had no free will. I was just part of the stupid computer.”

As a result, many people felt stuck, like they had little control and few options.

“I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out.”

Do these themes sound familiar to you? Our needs for feeling effective and fulfilled - for meaning - aren't new. Helping people fulfill those needs is as important as ever.

“People are messy” (and other lessons from self-managing teams)

A friend once shared some pithy wisdom about humanity that I’ve returned to time and time again. “People,” she said, “are messy.” 

As human beings, we’re wired to want control, and self-determination theory describes much of what motivates us. Yet we’ve also evolved a highly sophisticated sense of hierarchy and social status, spending much of our brain activity on calculating how everyone relates to everyone else.

The tension between these innate drives is particularly evident at work, where we desperately strive to find our place in the very hierarchy we don’t want submit to, and where we need to cooperate and collaborate to get things done. It’s even more acute (and interesting) when it comes to self-managing teams. 

Here are some things I’ve learned from observing such teams trying to spread Working Out Loud in their organizations. 

“Who will lead our self-managing team?”

The spread of WOL Circles in an organization usually begins when someone tries one, tells their friends, and Circles organically multiply. As they spread over a few months, a number of individuals emerge who care about WOL and want to do more. Now what? 

This is a critical juncture. If these early adopters don’t coalesce, the movement grows slowly or fizzles out as the early adopters move on. But sometimes the individuals tentatively come together to discuss their motivations and aspirations. They start to coordinate the next steps, and the first few seeds become the beginning of a grassroots movement.

Critically, leadership comes from contribution, not appointment. The people who care more tend to do more - more organizing, more experimenting, more outreach - and a “co-creation team” forms. It can be fragile, though. Conflicts at this stage, whether due to differences in style or substance, can cause the group (and the movement) to split or disintegrate completely. Somewhat ironically, ego can be the bane of self-management.

“The Grass Ceiling” 

As the WOL movement in an organization starts to grow, other possibilities and challenges emerge. The opportunities to integrate with existing programs and to scale to more locations and divisions may well require resources and the shifting of priorities.

This is another critical juncture. If the co-creation team continues to run without a budget and relies solely on volunteers, the grassroots movement hits some hard limits. Over time, the enthusiasm for the original idea is worn down by the slow pace of change and the bureaucratic resistance of the organization. 

Instead of trying to fight the way things are, successful co-creation teams leverage them. They shift from being a completely independent group to partnering with HR & other transformation managers responsible for existing programs. They seek executive sponsors for political cover and for resources.

The team may still be self-organizing, but they attach themselves to the hierarchy in a way that enables them to make a bigger, more sustainable difference.

A different kind of "secure attachment"

A more subtle example of self-management is a WOL Circle itself. Circles are purposefully designed so anyone can start one without budget or permission. The Circle Guides give people some structure, but how and when to do the work is up to the Circle members. They’re self-managing and often (but not always) self-organizing. 

But how do you get them started? What do you do when a Circle needs help? What if they struggle midway through or someone drops out? 

The varying responses to supporting Circles reminds me of attachment theory in parenting. Some organizations are completely hands-off. Others insist co-creation team members attend some Circle meetings or involve themselves in fixing issues a Circle may be facing.

The results are predictable. Without any help at all, some Circles aren’t as effective as they could be. With too much meddling, the Circle members lose their sense of autonomy and accountability, and start to see their helper as the person responsible for their progress (and issues). The co-creation team suffers too, as they struggle under a growing support burden they created.

The best approach is a kind of secure attachment. Circles are left to manage themselves and do the work on their own, but they know they can reach out to someone for support when they really need it. To facilitate this, some organizations are creating networks of certified experts across the company to ensure Circles can readily find trained help if (and only if) they want and need it.

Some remarkable results

Is this revolutionary? No. But it is remarkable that people can drive change using this kind of hybrid approach, combining self-managed initiatives with institutional support. 

As evidence of this are the results of the HR Excellence awards in Berlin late last week. One of the winning submissions was from a group of eight companies - Audi, BMW, Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Telekom - who are spreading Working Out Loud. 

The recipients were the self-managing teams who, without budget or permission, introduced and spread a movement inside their respective companies. Even more remarkable, they decided to organize themselves into a cross-company community of practice to share innovations that could help everyone accelerate the growth of those movements. Their companies all celebrated their achievement, and several now have board-level support.

Yes, people are messy. But given enough space to experiment, enough confidence to resist fighting for status, and enough support to keep going, we can make work more effective and fulfilling than it’s ever been.

100 slices of Thanksgiving

Isn’t it strange how a label on a calendar can make a difference? It’s Thanksgiving this Thursday in the US. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been wondering the same thing. When I mentioned it to someone in an email this week, she said she felt the same way.

“Is it me or does NYC feel different on Thanksgiving week? I might be projecting, but it feels like a kinder, more caring place, and I love this time of year.”
“I agree with you about the holiday season in New York.  There is a special feel to the city.”

Yes, we all know that being grateful is good, both for ourselves and the people around us. Yet who has time for that? Thanksgiving is different. There’s something about the simple structure of it, and the synchronization. It’s on the calendar and everyone does it.

But what if we carved up that day a little differently?

1440 divided by 365

A few months ago, my good friend (and founder of Fearless Inventory) mentioned the five-minute journal. “It’s a gratitude journal,” he told me, and he said it was helpful, so I ordered one.

You use it twice a day. In the morning when you wake up, you write down three things you’re grateful for and three things that would would make today great. Before you go to sleep, you write down three things that actually made the day great, and something that might have made the day even better. (That last bit is meant less as a judgment and more as learning for future days.) I found it takes me even less than five minutes to do it.

Given a day is 1440 minutes long, writing in my journal is like a little slice of Thanksgiving every day. The simple structure helped me do things I somehow never had the time or attention to do before. After 100 days, I noticed some changes.

Intentional consequences

When you do something mindfully 100 times in a row, you notice some patterns. I would often write similar things day after day. Gratitude for my family, our health, the chance to do meaningful work. The things that usually made each day great were often about being present for small moments during the day, especially those with my family and people close to me. 

Over and over I would realize that a “better day” would have meant paying more attention to people and less to technology and other distractions, that I would have been calmer and more joyful. An affirmation I’ve written down many times is "To let the gratefulness shine through me."

I also noticed that the moments of reflection actually shaped my days in ways I didn’t expect. In the morning, writing down my intention for what would make the day great would attune my attention, making me more mindful throughout the day of what was truly important. Oh, that’s right! Watching the kids’ swimming lesson is one of the things that was going to make today great. I’ll focus on that instead of taking my book or laptop.

My attention also shifted when it came to gratitude. Instead of just thinking of things I already had, I noticed I was actively looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day. I’d be in the supermarket and think Aren’t I lucky that I can choose from so much abundance? In the doctor’s office I’d be thankful for having access to medical care and health insurance. A cold day would make me appreciate a hot shower and a warm comfortable bed. Later, I’d write those things down in my journal, reinforcing those thoughts and further attuning my attention.

After 100 days, I felt…happier. I realize now that happiness, like being grateful or kind or almost anything you can say about a person, isn’t so much about who you are. It’s about how much you practice.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Every day. 

 

 

 

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German

It began like any other annual offsite meeting. Three hundred of us from our division - “the top management” we called ourselves - gathered to experience lush accommodations, good food and wine, and lots of presentations. The mood, as was typical for these conferences, was a strange cocktail of cynicism and feigned enthusiasm.

Then they announced the guest speaker: Ben Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility. I had just finished the book and it helped me see that the lenses I used to view the world could change everything. (It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.) I wondered what he would say.

“Shining eyes”

He played the piano as he told us stories, connecting his experiences as a conductor with leadership lessons in a beautiful way. 

"Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I'd been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra doesn't make a sound. My picture appears on the front of the CD —
(Laughter)
But the conductor doesn't make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,"Ben, what happened?" That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. 
Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.”

The room was quiet. You could almost feel each of us “top managers” reflecting on whether people in our organizations had shining eyes, and whether we were the kind of leaders who could make that happen.

“Ode to Joy”

Then, as a means of having us experience something we wouldn’t think possible, he said he was going to have all 300 of us sing “Ode to Joy” in German. Nervous laughter rippled throughout the room as he handed out the lyrics, written phonetically so we could all pronounce them. We shot embarrassed glances at each other like school children trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.

He began conducting us, and a few people mumbled the first words. He immediately stopped us and had us try again, and again, exhorting each of us to reach deeper. Soon, infected by his energy and enthusiasm, we gradually shed our egos and fears and self-imposed limits. We let go - and we sang.

“FROY-NER SHER-NER GETTER-FOON-KEN”

We were…doing it! We looked at each other with amazement. We drew confidence from each other and sang louder. Whether or not we knew German, whether or not we were good singers, we were SINGING! 

At that moment an energy passed through us, a resonance of some kind. We were, perhaps for the first time as a management team, literally “in synch” and “on the same wavelength.” The cynicism melted away and the enthusiasm became genuine. We had tapped into the art of possibility - a sense of capability and wonder and joy. It was beautiful.

When the music stops

Throughout the rest of our conference, we talked about that moment. Then the meeting ended. We went back to our offices and our habits, and the feelings of common purpose and possibility faded. I was disappointed, but that image stayed with me, as did something Ben Zander said at the end of his talk.

“Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me, it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

Who are you being? How many shining eyes are around you? It’s taken me a decade to understand that you don’t change your answers to these questions in one magical moment, but with practice over months and years and for the rest of your life. .

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German? It was more than a a nice way to inspire an audience. It was a glimpse of the way things could be. 

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

These people are experiencing the future of work. Now. 

Usually, discussions about the “future of work” focus on how things will change in years to come. We’ll all self-organize more, for example, and work in networks instead of rigid hierarchies. We’ll find and share information on social networks instead of email and one-way intranets. And so on.

Anticipating this, almost every company today has launched one or more large transformation programs, trying to become more agile, more collaborative, and more “digital.”

A few people, though, aren’t waiting for those programs to be implemented. For them, the future of work is now, and I got to see evidence of that last week in Munich and Erlangen. 

Part of the WOL CO-creation team at BMW

A chasm between here and there

Imagine you’re a company with a few hundred thousand people. You’ve been successfully working with a traditional command-and-control structure for over 100 years. Now, top management sees that you have to change. “In a VUCA world,” they’ll say, “we must move more quickly.”

But after the CEO’s speech, everyone will go back to their desk, surrounded by the same people, systems, and processes from the “legacy” way of working. Some will decide to wait and see if this change passes, like so many before it. For many others, their habits will be so deeply rutted that they won’t have the time or attention to change things. Even if they agree there’s a better way, they’ll be stuck.

Taking a step instead of a leap

When people at BMW and Siemens thought Working Out Loud could help their companies change behavior and corporate culture, the prospect of getting management support and changing so many minds and habits seemed daunting. 

So they tried a different approach, and it gave them a taste for how the future of work could actually work - not in some vague or abstract way, but in a way they could apply to other kinds of projects and programs. Here’s a summary:

  • The idea started with a few people and formed a cross-functional team.
  • They didn’t ask for permission or a budget.
  • They tested the idea with small, cheap experiments.
  • Word spread via internal and external social networks. 
  • Social networks helped them build a tribe inside the company - and learn from the outside.
  • They used feedback and social proof to get management support.
  • They opportunistically integrated their work into institutional programs to scale the movement.
  • They keep iterating and adapting, influencing more people, and the movement keeps growing. 

Two companies. Two events. Two milestones.

In Munich and Erlangen, what started as grassroots movements began to morph into something else last week. At a BMW event (tagged #BMWWOLCON on Twitter), a board member endorsed the WOL team's work and their growing movement in front of more than 500 people, giving it new authority and importance.

At the Siemens event, they reached over 200 people, signed up almost half to join the movement, and got four different groups (including HR) to commit “to bring WOL into official initiatives.” Here's a summary from the organizer on LinkedIn:

“Some numbers: Working-Out-Loud, Kick-off at Siemens Healthineers/Siemens, Nov 03
  • 200 participants, incl. folks from US, Brazil, UK and France
  • 20 people listening/ watching to streaming
  • 16 circles formed
  • 20 people directly registered to join a circle after the event 
  • 4 groups out of six formed to bring #WOL into official initiatives
... I am completely overwhelmed and glad. A huge thanks to all that made this self-organized grass-roots event & initiative happen.”

Organizational change that feels good

This is what the future could be like. The WOL movements at BMW and Siemens are examples of how good ideas can come from anywhere. Then they spread using elements of agile, lean, and design thinking: experimenting and getting feedback, learning in ways that are low-cost and low-risk, then leveraging the institution for scale when you discover what works in your environment.

I’ve seen that same approach at Bosch, Daimler, ZF, and other companies. I’ve seen the same passion & persistence when “work” isn’t just a set of instructions from the boss, but is something powered by people across the company who care deeply about a topic. After these events, someone inevitably volunteers "to spread WOL in my area too.” I think they do it not just because they’re fans of the method, but because they’re hungry for a taste of what work could be like. 

You can do it too. Try your own Working Out Loud experiment, create a movement within your company, and experience the future of work for yourself. Now.

Which seeds will you water?

Working in big companies, I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide range of human behavior, and it can be disheartening. Not only the big systemic injustices, like unfair performance management systems or abuses of power, but the personal, day-to-day exchanges between people.

Sometimes it’s the language we use. Where I’ve worked, it was routine to label entire divisions of our own company as “morons” (and much worse). Emails were often so threatening and mean-spirited that merely preparing to look at your inbox would evoke a stress response. 

Sometimes it’s a feeling you get when you walk down the hall or step into an elevator. In one location I visited for lunch, I said thank you to the woman clearing the trays and was told, “People don’t do that here.”

Sometimes, it’s how people from different jobs (titles, divisions, locations) relate to each other in person. I heard an executive tell someone they wouldn’t connect with them on LinkedIn because they were of too low a status, and their more important connections might notice. 

When you see these kinds of behavior, or experience it yourself, what do you do?

I used to get angry and frustrated. I would be quick to identify the villain - the bad boss, the sender of the nasty email - and blame them for my unhappiness at work. But after thirty years of working in corporations, I realized there is a never-ending supply of villains, bad behavior, and potential unhappiness.

Lately, I’m trying to respond differently. I ask myself, “Which seeds will you water?”

It’s a simple metaphor I found in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the question has been helpful in determining where I put my energy.

“In the depth of our consciousness, there are all kinds of positive and negative seeds - seeds of anger, delusion and fear, and seeds of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. Many of these seeds have been transmitted to use by our ancestors. We should learn to recognize every one of these seeds in us in order to practice diligence…The practice is to refrain from watering the negative seeds…and recognizing the best seeds in others and watering them.”

When something negative comes up, I have a choice. I can nurture my anger and indignation. Maybe I even spread the story so I can shame the villain while infecting more people with negative feelings. Or I can recognize that, if I look, I can find many more examples of behavior worth celebrating, I can also choose to lead with my own positive examples, practicing the kind of empathy and generosity I wish to see in the workplace.

This doesn’t mean I have to ignore bad behavior entirely, or never act on it. I just don’t have to strengthen it.

The older I get, the less I think of the workplace as being comprised of good people and bad people. Instead, we’re all just people, each with our own stories and struggles, our own good and bad seeds.

Which seeds will you water?

Your perfect month

The inspiration to do this exercise came from Moyra Mackie, the first person I ever called “coach.” At the time, I was working at Deutsche Bank, struggling to write drafts of Working Out Loud, and feeling like I was paddling in a leaky canoe - lots of activity but not much progress or direction. 

On one of our phone calls, Moyra suggested that I write down what my “perfect month” might look like in a year or two. That timeframe was far enough away to give me the latitude to do different things, yet close enough that I needed to be practical. My perfect month wasn’t just about sitting on a beach in Okinawa, but about a way to earn a living while living a balanced life.

So I took a piece of paper, wrote down the days of the month, and started to imagine what I would do each day. 

The things I began listing I had considered before. Yet something about mapping those ideas to specific days in the month made them seem more real - and made me ask myself more questions. Yes, I would like to travel, write, do research, etc. But how much? One day a month? Five? Ten? I found myself visualizing my days and weeks. I imagined how it would feel - how I would feel.

I could see this was a good visioning exercise, and I enjoyed doing it. (It’s a nice companion to the “Letter from Your Future Self” in Week 7 of a WOL Circle.) Then I put the piece of paper away, and forgot about it. 

That was a few years ago. I happened to find that piece of paper recently and was struck by how much of it describes my last month, and the month before that. Though my “perfect month” wasn’t meant as an exact prescription or prediction, it captured a direction I wanted to take. It enabled me to see an example of what a more balanced, creative, fulfilling portfolio might look like.

That exercise helped me appreciate how articulating your intention can be extremely powerful. It can help you identify what experiments you might do to see if the direction is a good one for you, and who you might build relationships with to discover more. It can help you make that all-important shift from feeling stuck to taking a step.

When you reflect on your own career and life, where are you heading? What’s your perfect month?

What empowerment looks like: Daniella's story

I loved reading Daniella's story for many reasons: her desire to help young children get exposed to science and technology, the photos of her and the “inspired little scientists with shining eyes,” the article in the German newspaper.

I was inspired by how she turned an idea into reality, using her Working Out Loud Circle to create a possibility she hadn’t imagined before. When she started, she had the same doubts and fears we all have. But by taking small steps over time, with feedback and peer support along the way, she made something wonderful emerge.

Here’s the beginning of Daniella’s post on LinkedIn. (You can read it in full by clicking on the image below.) As you read it, think of how empowered you would feel if you could bring ideas to life like that. Think of what your organization would be like if more people approached issues and opportunities like Daniella -  with generosity, creativity, and persistence. It’s an approach you can learn - and spread. 

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

 

 

The bridge from where you are to where you want to be

It seemed like something was missing for her. She was working inside one of the world’s largest corporations and, though she liked her job, what she really enjoyed doing was coaching other people. When she told me how she had looked into professional certifications and coaching jobs, her eyes were shining.

Then she paused. “But there are already 200,000 life coaches in Germany,” she said, “and I have a child.” She knew it would be tough to make a living, and was aware the odds were against her. Yet if she didn’t try, she might always wonder “what might have been.” 

What would you do?

The problem with building bridges

For most of my life, I thought of a career as a set of well-planned steps. Like building a bridge, there’s a grand plan, and you need to spend a lot of time and money (training, entry-level jobs, struggles to get customers), before you can reach the other side.

That’s an awfully risky approach - for two reasons. The first is that there’s a huge gap between the idea of doing something for a living and actually doing it every day, and it’s a terrible thing to realize your dream job is nightmarish in reality. Second is that the job you chose to strive for is just one job you happen to know about, and ignores the much wider array of possibilities you never knew existed.

You might build a bridge only to realize you don’t want to go to the other side after all.

More possibilities with less risk

Now more than ever, career planning is an oxymoron.  Instead, a much better approach is to start with only a general direction in mind, and then conduct small experiments that help you learn what a good next step might be. That’s “purposeful discovery.” Your experiments could be as simple as contributions to people related to your goal, or a conversation with someone who’s already doing what you have in mind.

For the woman who wanted to be a life coach, she might start by offering her services for free to colleagues at work, thereby helping people and gaining valuable experience while still getting a paycheck. She could meet with professional life coaches to better understand what being a coach is truly like. She might even try to find all the other life coaches in her company and connect them online so they could all share their experiences.

These kinds of free experiments would help her refine her sense of what she likes and doesn’t like, and expose her to other possibilities she hadn’t considered. Maybe over time she discovers her dream job is not to be independent after all, but to act as an internal coach in her company, or lead a community there, or offer a coaching framework that lets other companies tap into their own internal expertise. Only with experimentation, feedback, and connection will she discover that.

The bridge between where you are and where you want to be isn’t a bridge at all. Rather, it can be more like a leisurely hike through the woods. You have a general direction in mind and take a few steps, mindful of the signs and clues around you, and a path emerges. This approach gives you access to more possibilities with less risk. It may still be strenuous, but you’re much more likely to enjoy the journey.

The ultimate vanity search

I've done it myself, and I recommend you do it reasonably often. Recently, I learned that “47% of American adult internet users have done it,” though I think the real number is higher. 

It’s a vanity search. You type your name into a search engine and see what comes up, seeing yourself as others might see you.

When I first searched for “john stepper” all I found was stepper exercise equipment and an old article about work I was no longer interested in. Over time, I learned I could shape my reputation through my contributions online. I could amplify who I was, what I did, and what I cared about.

To help others do the same, Week 6 of the WOL Circle Guides focuses on improving your online presence, and the first step is to search for yourself and discuss the results. “Are you and your work easy to find? Are the results what you would like others to see?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking of a different kind of vanity search. As with the original search, I'm not happy with the results, and I'm working on improving them. In this new search, you go beyond your online presence to your overall presence - what you say and do, and how you say and do it.

Look in your email inbox and see the language you use. Watch how people act when they are around you. Look into the faces of your children, and into your partner’s eyes.

Search deeply. What do you see? What would you like to see?

When the baby cries

I was in a hotel room, sleeping deeply, when I heard a baby screaming in the room next to ours. Its crying was so loud and urgent that it yanked me awake.

I was immediately irritated, even angry. Goddamit, why can’t that baby be quiet? Then I heard the father yelling, sounding desperate, “What IS it?! What is your PROBLEM?!” I started to judge him for the way he was reacting. 

It was the that I remembered a practice I had read about recently called tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “sending and taking.” 

When the baby cries.jpg

It’s a simple practice. If someone is suffering, you breathe in, as if you’re taking in that suffering, and you send out thoughts of happiness or comfort or whatever might provide relief. It’s an exercise in compassion. 

I tried it. I thought of the baby, breathed in its confusion and pain, and breathed out soothing thoughts. I thought of the father, breathed in his frustration, and sent him calm and patience. I reflected on how I had been in similar situations many times, and how upsetting it could be.

My judgment and irritation melted away, and the baby stopped crying. I was incredulous at first. Did tonglen really work? Before drifting back to sleep, I remember thinking that I had just tapped into some kind of superpower. That feeling didn’t last long, however, as a few hours later the baby woke me up again, and this time I was in no mood for tonglen. Nevertheless, that night of broken sleep made it clear I had a choice of how to respond to upsetting events, and that the compassionate choice made me happier.

You can practice tonglen on yourself too, when you’re hurting in some way. Maybe it's when a driver honks loudly behind you, or you read an upsetting story in the news, or see someone begging on the street. Whatever the emotion is - irritation, anger, disgust - you don’t have to suppress it or berate yourself. Just take a moment to feel it, examine it with a sense of curiosity, and reflect on all the other people on the planet who are going through something similar. Then you breathe in for all those countless people, including yourself, and you breathe out relief.

The next time the baby cries -  when something or someone upsets your - see if you can practice “sending and taking.” Catch the initial feeling; breathe in suffering; breathe out compassion. As you practice, you become kinder to yourself and others, and you see just how related and interconnected we all are.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

A friend of mine went back to his old neighborhood and was talking with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time. At one point, the conversation turned to politics, and the topic of immigration came up. One of his friends made it clear where he stood.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

I immediately wondered who “our own” might actually include. Would it be all Americans or just people in his part of the country? Would it include the many millions on welfare? Those who can’t afford health insurance? People who were otherwise different from him in terms of religion, race, or sexual orientation?

It’s a primal instinct to want to take care of our own. The field of evolutionary biology describes how the bonds formed by many species who live in groups lead to pro-social behaviors that help the group succeed and pass on its genes.

Yet humans have taken this to odd extremes. Our definition of “our own” can change from moment to moment based on the context we’re in. Research has shown, for example, that even 11-year old boys on different teams at summer camp quickly form into us and them, and good and bad behaviors stem from those arbitrary boundaries. The same pattern plays out in large organizations, where no matter how we draw the lines, the infighting remains. 

The suffering that results, in the workplace and around the planet, is incalculable. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re no longer in small hunter-gather groups struggling to pass on our genes, and we don’t need to be victims of our biology.

To improve how we treat each other requires us to be aware of our natural tendencies to divide and diminish so we can extend our sense of relatedness - our sense of “our own” - to a much bigger group.

It requires an open mind to see that the other side is actually not a side at all, but human beings remarkably like us if we give ourselves the space to imagine it. 

It requires practice. Small steps, over time, with feedback and peer support, can help us gradually develop the compassion and empathy we need to make us all happier. 

This is the work we can and must do.

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful