Please pay attention

“Cool neon sign,” I thought to myself as I walked by it in the hotel lobby. I was there all day for a conference, and it caught my eye each time I passed it.

First I wondered why they hadn't turned it on. Then I wondered what it would look like if it was lit up, imagining the red glow in the hallway. I even pointed it out to someone else and we agreed that we liked it.

It was only at the end of the day that I discovered what the sign really was, and what it might mean.

The signs I pass every day

For most of my day, I’m not paying attention at all. I’ll stare at the bottle of vitamins and forget if I already took one. I’ll walk twenty minutes and not look at the sky once. Much worse, I’ll be in a room with people I love and won’t really see them at all, engrossed instead with my book or laptop.

I’m not special in this regard. In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how precious little attention we have. “Paying attention” requires extra energy and, as the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

Looking at things differently

Heading out of the hotel, I passed the sign one last time. This time, I stopped and walked up to it. That’s when I noticed a small placard well beneath it to the right.

The “neon sign” wasn’t neon at all, but was made of painted wood. When I examined it closely I could see the small carving marks.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. I had passed a sign with clear instructions - “PLEASE PAY ATTENTION!” - and never took a moment to really see it. I had instantly created a truth, “Cool neon sign,” and was blind to other possibilities until I paused and examined my assumptions more closely.

Giving the gift of attention

It turns out you can train yourself to pay attention, and that the more you train, the more easily you can offer it.

You can practice offering it to yourself by paying attention to what you’re doing in any given moment. Notice the taste and texture of the food you’re eating, or the feel of the water in the shower, or your surroundings as you walk. Practice offering it to others by actively listening to them, and pausing to consider things from their point of view.

Sometimes offering attention is simply being with someone. Each time my son asks, “Want to play Sorry, Dad?” or my daughter tells me a story of what happened with her friends, I wish I had that neon sign reminding me of what I should do.

“Please pay attention.” You and all the people around you deserve it.

***

Note: My next post will be on January 7th, and I’ll be migrating this blog to workingoutloud.com, where I’ll publish an article every Wednesday and Saturday. Have a wonderful holiday.

A better way to welcome people to your organization

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to join a new organization, particularly a large one spread across locations. Don’t worry if it’s been a while since you started a new job. Things haven’t changed that much.

You go through an orientation process, largely about rules, tools, and values. You get access and accounts, a desk. You meet the people on your team and a few others sitting around you. 

Then, over a period of many years, you slowly build your network and learn how to navigate the organization. The more connected you become, the easier it is to find who and what you need to get things done. The richer your network, the more valuable you are to the organization. 

Here’s a way to significantly speed up this process.

Day 1

As part of the orientation process, you form people into Working Out Loud Circles, peer support groups of 4-5 people. They can be in different locations or different divisions, depending on your process and on the kind of connectivity you’d like to develop.

Normally, in your very first meeting, you start by picking a goal and listing people related to that goal. These Circles for new joiners will be even simpler, since each person already has a goal of getting to know people in their new organization. To make it easy for them, you provide a curated list of relationships that would be helpful for them given their particular job. This list will include relevant groups and influencers, as well as management.

Over the coming 12 weeks, each Circle will follow simple steps in the Circle Guides customized to include your organization’s examples and technology. So the exercises each week will refer to specific people and specific channels, making it straightforward to start building meaningful relationships at work.

Day 10

By the second meeting, the Circle members have already bonded as a group. They’re all going through the same process together, helping each other, and they feel it’s safe and confidential. It’s rare that anyone at work has a trusted mentor, so being part of a trusted group of peers can be quite powerful.

Together, they're already making small contributions to people in their relationship lists. It might be as simple as offering recognition by pressing a Follow button on the intranet. Or they might offer appreciation with a comment thanking someone for work they’ve done or a resource they’ve shared. They’re using a range of tools, not for the sake of digital transformation but to build relationships that matter.

After the second meeting, their network is already bigger than it would have been using a traditional on-boarding process. 

Day 100

Week after week, following the steps the Circle process, the group continues to do a wider range of things in the service of building relationships. They’re joining communities, asking questions, helping other new joiners, finding and sharing useful resources. 

While they further expand their network and deepen relationships with the people in it, they are developing a new mindset and new set of habits: working in an open, collaborative way. 

By their last meeting, they're able to Work Out Loud towards any goal. That’s a capability recently described as “perhaps the most fundamental digital workplace skill.” For their next project or problem, whatever it is, they’ll be able to find people that can help them and build relationships so they’re more likely to collaborate.

The results

When you welcome employees this way, you increase engagement and connectivity, and you reduce the time it takes to be productive. Instead of learning from binders in classrooms, new joiners learn by doing and collaborating in peer support groups.

Now imagine if all your new joiners, in their first few months, developed the habit of working in a more agile, visible, networked way. Imagine the positive change in your culture, the improved effectiveness of your people, and the greater return on your technology investments.

When you change how you welcome people to your organization, you have the chance to create sustainable change that feels good. But only if you imagine a better way, and take a step.

Oh, the places you will go

Growing up, my world was small. We didn’t have money for vacations, so we mostly played in the street right outside our house, pausing only for cars that came through. Some days, I would bike for hours, retracing the same routes in our all-Italian neighborhood. A major adventure for me was to head towards Pelham Bay Park, a little over a mile away.

Gradually, my world got a bit bigger. Going to high school in Manhattan, a subway ride away, brought me into contact with other kinds of people, other perspectives and ambitions. I was 22 when I took my first trip out of the country.

Then came work and business travel. It was thrilling in the beginning to go to London or Moscow or Tokyo. But over time, visiting the same offices year after year, I felt a certain sameness, confined by the structure of a big corporation. We all largely thought the same way. Different languages, perhaps, but talking about the same things.

Well into my forties, something changed.

I started to make my work visible - my learning, ideas, projects. Often I simply shared my appreciation for someone or something interesting. Like pebbles in a pond, those small contributions brought me into contact with new people in new places.

Over the years, the ripples kept spreading. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve been collaborating with extraordinarily diverse groups of people. There were students at the University of Eisenstadt in Austria. Employees of a consulting company in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and an energy company in Essen, Germany. Even a large meeting of the Australian Tax Office in Canberra, Adelaide, and other cities. Just yesterday, ripples from my visible work led to connections with people in Tasmania. Then someone in Germany shared a picture of my work being discussed in a public school there.

Joachim Haydecker teaching WOL

This isn’t about commercial success. (None of these involved money.) Rather, it demonstrates the power of purposeful discovery. “Purposeful” in that you make work visible related to your goals and interests. “Discovery” because you’re not sure what will happen, if anything, when you do that.

One thing for sure is that being more open about what you’re doing (and want to do) brings you into contact with people and opportunities you never could have imagined. Each connection can be a link to a new set of possibilities.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had learned to do this earlier. I can’t change that, but I can help others make their world bigger sooner. 

What about you? Where would you like to go?

***

Oh, the places you'll go!

Changing organizational behavior: top down or bottom up?

I’ve seen the change management movie so many times that I know the script by heart. 

  1. The dramatic descriptions of the burning platform and its dire consequences. 
  2. The overuse of the words “transformation” and “journey.” 
  3. The recognition of the difficulties ahead, and the appeal to everyone to engage despite them. 
  4. The management announcements listing who’s in and who’s out.
  5. The lack of actual change.

Some of the movies were pure farce. During one reorganization of a large IT department, thousands of people were forced to play a board game so we could understand the new operating model. Then there was the firm-wide program to change our culture, complete with new values on posters and mandatory meetings to discuss them. One executive made a video, making clear his impatience with the bad behaviors he had seen, only to be fired himself for those same behaviors. 

“Change management” has become an oxymoron, a caricature of bureaucracy captured in popular cartoons. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Grassroots or “Grass ceiling”?

I was thinking about this during a Knowledge Jam event organized by Cogneon in Nürnberg last week. All the participants were interested in change of some kind, whether it was developing more collaborative cultures and new kinds of leadership or more agile teams and engaged staff. One of the methods discussed was Working Out Loud Circles, and how they helped make change sustainable.

Then came the discussion and debate. “What’s they best way to drive change? Top-down or bottom-up?”

The trade-offs are obvious. If management leads the change effort, then employees know it’s expected as part of their job and is likely to have resources to implement it. If employees lead it, it’s because they believe in it.

As Peter Senge said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” So, appealing to employees’ intrinsic motivations is important. Yet without the support of management, grassroots efforts can be trampled, or spread too slowly, or hit limits - “the grass ceiling” - that prevent them from driving meaningful change.

An emerging pattern

Now that Working Out Loud Circles are spreading in dozens of organizations, there’s a discernible pattern. 

Quite commonly, it starts with a single person deciding to form one or more Circles. They don’t need budget and they don’t ask for permission. They just find a few colleagues who might be open to change, download the free guides, and start. In most cases, the early adopters have such a positive experience that they tell others, a second wave forms, and they begin collecting feedback from people.

Then comes a shift. The people in the first few waves use the feedback they’ve collected to get management support of some kind. This could be in the form of an official event or other activities to encourage the spread of the practice. In some cases, HR will get involved in sponsoring the event or include it in their training offerings. Or they’ll commission customized guides that refer to company goals, examples, and technology. These kinds of things make it easier for more people to feel safe that they can join a Circle without fear of getting into trouble in some way.

Start where you are

When I worked in large corporations, we spent millions on messages and management related to change, but close to nothing on actually empowering people to do things differently.

One way to fix that is to help people help themselves. By equipping and empowering early adopters to drive change, you learn what works and doesn’t work while you collect real stories from real people about the benefits and possibilities. Then, armed with those results, you can leverage the institution to scale and accelerate the change you’ve begun to see. 

The best way to drive behavior change inside your organization isn’t top-down or bottom-up. It’s both. 

Next week, I’ll describe a new kind of on-boarding process that’s a good example of this.

A fire on the 23rd floor

I miss having a fireplace. Stacking the logs just right and inhaling the earthy smoke of the burning wood. Staring at the dance of orange, yellow, and blue as you bask in the flame’s warmth. Listening for the crackles and pops of the overheated sap.

But I live on the 23rd floor of a modern apartment building, and we don’t have a fireplace. So early one cold Fall morning, well before the sun was up, I had an idea:

I would project a video of a fireplace onto the wall.

I remember being pleased with myself immediately. Though I wouldn't have the warmth of the fire, I could enjoy the color and the sounds. Even better, there wouldn’t be any mess or smoke, and the projector could make the flames 9 feet high.

In the dark living room, I found a video of a Yule Log burning, and quietly set everything up. I sat down and luxuriated in the colors and sounds of a huge fire, still smugly reflecting on my own creativity and cleverness.

Until I heard the sirens.

My eyes widened. “No,” I thought. "Couldn't be." I went to the window and watched two fire engines turn off the West Side Highway, race onto our street, and stop short at our building. I quickly turned off the projector, and the room went dark.

Then the phone rang. “Mr. Stepper,” he said, “is there a problem in your apartment?” I hurriedly explained that I had been watching a video and that everything was fine. I sat down, embarrassed at having caused such a fuss so early in the morning, but glad the doorman was able to handle it.

The came the banging at the door. It wasn’t a knock, but more like a battering ram, the kind of sound you hear before the door explodes into the room in splinters. Still in my pajamas, I raced to open it and found myself facing a fireman in full firefighting gear, complete with a large ax.

“Hello,” I whispered, mindful that everyone was still sleeping. “Everything’s fine.”

“We got a call there was a fire,” he said in a loud, booming voice. “No, no,” I continued whispering. “I was just watching a video and someone from another building must have seen it and thought there was a fire. I’m so sorry.”

He looked at me with what I can only describe as a cocktail of disappointment, relief, and disgust. There were no people to save, and no danger to him or his crew. Just some idiot watching a fireplace video in his pajamas.

“A Yule Log video?” he asked, guessing correctly. He slumped away, equipment swinging and jangling. He didn’t even wait for my response.

Later that week, my son asked to watch a dinosaur movie on the projector. My wife looked at me, looked at the window, and looked back at me. She didn’t need to say a word.

We pulled down the shades.

Fire on the 23rd floor
Fire on the 23rd floor

Victim or visible?

The group had been through years of budgets cuts and reorganizations, and they were tired of the continued change and uncertainty. Now, at the annual conference, a newly appointed leader addressed them.

She acknowledged all they had been through, and the reality of the financial challenges. She made it clear how much she understood and valued their work. She said she wasn’t interested in more reorganizations. 

Instead, she asked the people to make a change themselves.

What she had observed in her short tenure was that the people who knew about their work thought it was excellent. But those who weren’t aware of it thought the organization was broken somehow.

The key, she told the audience, was that they needed to be more visible. They needed to share their work - “what you’re doing and why it matters” - so that more people would be aware. Doing so would also give their supporters a chance to make their support visible. That was the best way to take control of the situation they were in.

She recognized this might feel new or even uncomfortable for some people. But without being more visible, the only other option was to be a victim of more changes and more cuts.

“Meet them where they are,” she told them, describing her early efforts using Twitter. She didn’t start because she loved it or because it came naturally. She did it because she wanted to engage people there and spread news of the good work that might be useful to them. 

As she finished her talk, she made it clear that “victim or visible” was a choice they had to make.

The next presentation was on Working Out Loud, and I tried to make that choice even easier, to help the audience take a step.

 

 

“How do I make more of her?”

I was sitting in the hotel lobby, tired after having given a talk and two workshops, when she walked up to me.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she said. I recognized her from one of the tables at the front. She wanted to tell me about the women in one of her educational programs, and how ideas in my talk might help them.

The story she told me has stayed with me all week. I feel like it’s one of those times when the universe is nudging me to do something.

Helping mothers and their children

She works at a university, and has for a long time. She had been running a program to help mothers learn about nutrition for their children. They would talk about what’s in foods that people commonly feed their kids, and what to watch out for. They would introduce them to foods they might not be used to cooking with, like avocado and quinoa.

While many of the women found it helpful, some were particularly enthusiastic. They truly cared about the topic. So when she got funding for a related program and needed to hire people, one of her team members suggested they consider hiring women they were already helping.

apple-avocado-cranberry-walnut-salad

Working with (and around) the system

This wasn’t the normal recruiting process. But the woman running the program had been doing this kind of thing for decades, and she knew how to work with the system. She hired them.

She started reading some of the texts and emails from one of the women. In the program, they would cook meals so they could all try the food themselves and learn how it was prepared. A mother-turned-nutrition educator had been searching for recipes. She was exploring and creating ("What if we tried cranberries with that instead?") and was excited to share her ideas. I could feel the administrator's sense of wonder and hope as she read the exchanges. I could feel the mother's empowerment as she tapped into new ways she could contribute. 

Then she put down her phone, somewhat downcast, and said, “Normally, the system rejects this kind of thing.” In addition to rules about hiring, there were rules about which recipes they were allowed to use, about which communications channels to use. But she said she had followed the rules for too long, and now she cared more about helping people, whatever it took. I could tell she was gratified to have helped one young woman, and also that she felt compelled to do more. That’s when she asked, “How do I make more of her?”

“What if?"

As I listened to what was being shared by email and text, I thought of Jane Bozarth’s book, “Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud,” in which she offered a wide and wonderful range of examples of everyday people making their work visible. I started to ask some "What if?" questions.

What if all of the recipes and other ideas were more visible? Instead of being hidden in emails and texts, the mothers, teachers, and others who cared about the topic could interact, share, and learn in an online community, or even a simple Facebook group.

What if the program administrator wasn’t the one responsible for “making more of her”? The women in the program could use their visible contributions to make their own connections and find people as passionate about the topic as they were. 

What if you didn’t need to ask permission or make it part of the program at all, but empowered the women to set things up for themselves?

This. This is at the core of what I hope to do, to spread this kind of empowerment, one that enables people to take a bit more control over their lives. To enable people of any background or circumstances to learn, connect, and access opportunities they might never have known existed otherwise.

We shook hands as she said goodbye. “I’ll definitely contact you,” she said. I hope she does.

Finally, an FAQ for Working Out Loud

It has been two years since workingoutloud.com went live, and during that entire time it bothered me that there was no single place for frequently asked questions. I would write blog posts or respond on Twitter and Facebook, and so would many other people. But over time, the questions and answers would fade.

I finally took a step towards fixing that today with a new FAQ. It’s only seven questions to start, and I kept the answers short. But I included links to related blogs posts and other resources that offer more in-depth answers.

I hope you like it, and I appreciate any suggestions for improving it.

http://workingoutloud.com/faq/

It’s time to step up

its-time-to-step-up

Things did not turn out the way I hoped they would. What should I do next?

I could be angry, and make my anger visible with a nasty comment on social media.

I could search the internet for extreme examples and share those that validate my fears and beliefs, ignoring my confirmation bias.

I could taunt or confront people who have different opinions, mocking them for their obvious lack of principles and education.

I could defriend the few in my network who disagree with me, thereby repairing the small breeches in a social bubble I have carefully cultivated, one that brings me comfort that I’m surrounded by people who think like me.

I have done all of these things in the past, and it has yielded nothing but unhappiness.

I’m done. I am no longer willing to be part of the problem, to feed the escalation of polarizing, dehumanizing behaviors that seems to be the new normal.

It’s time to step up.

If I want more kindness and compassion, I can be kinder and more compassionate, online and in person, throughout my day.

If I see unkind behavior, I can speak up and offer my support.

If I want more opportunities for people faced with systemic bias, I can do something to give them a voice, to help them gain access they might not have otherwise.

If I want to improve how people relate to each other - to replace hate and fear with empathy and generosity - I can continue to develop and spread a practice that does that. I can make that my life’s work.

I am not angry. I am not depressed.

I am committed.

A source of strength in times of uncertainty

It’s going to happen to you. Maybe your company will cancel your project, or your trusted boss will resign. Maybe an event in your personal life will make you unsure of the future. Maybe your country’s election will leave you numb with disbelief, fear, and anger.

What will you do when it happens?

My own instinct is to react, to disengage completely or to work myself up into a frenzy of anxiety, replaying the issue over and over. But during the last few years, a simple practice has helped me through many challenges. I ask myself these 3 questions.

What am I trying to accomplish? 

Who’s related to that goal?

How can I contribute to them to deepen our relationship?

Focusing on my goals, even small ones, re-centers me. It gives me a sense of purpose, providing some much-needed stability amidst the uncertainty.

Thinking of my goals in terms of other people, and of what might be useful to them, is an act of empathy. It takes me beyond my immediate worries. It makes me mindful that I am part of something bigger than myself.

Making contributions to others, even small actions like offering appreciation, gives me a sense of control. I am doing something. The resulting interactions give me a sense of connection, a sense of relatedness that is comforting.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore the things happening around you. But dividing external events into “good” and “bad” and reacting accordingly is a recipe for unhappiness. When you channel your energy into the 3 questions instead, you tap into your natural intrinsic motivators - your need for control, competence, and connection. That enables you to do something constructive for yourself and others.

Today is the middle of “Working Out Loud Week” or #WOLweek, and there are many excellent posts written by people around the world about the practice. But for me today, I wanted to emphasize that Working Out Loud is about more than activities and tips. It’s about changing how people relate to each other and to the work they do. The practice starts with you. As more people do it, entire organizations can become more open and collaborative, more human.

Your world needn’t be limited by today’s headlines. As you build meaningful connections with other people, you’re weaving your own safety net as well as links to other possibilities. Your network can be a web of resilience that leads you through difficult times. Your relationships can make you stronger, more effective, and hopeful.

 

The old man in seat 8A

I was on a flight heading to Florida to speak at a conference. The plane was full. As I approached my row, I noticed there was an old man already sitting in the seat next to mine. I noticed the newspaper in his hands was shaking slightly. I said hello.

When the stewardess told him she needed to store his cane for takeoff, I assured him I would get it if he needed it. When he dropped his newspaper, I picked it up. When he was struggling to open up his bag of pretzels, or figure out how the folding tray worked, I helped him. He seemed embarrassed, but I told him it was tricky and only looked easy when you knew how.

He was worried about forgetting his cane. He told me that his son had driven him to the airport, and it was only after they had traveled 20 miles that he remembered he left his cane back at the house. “Do you really need it, Dad?” his son asked. They drove back.

“I was just glad he wasn’t mad,” he said. “I felt bad but he didn’t get upset. That was really nice of him.”

I couldn’t help but think of my own parents. Of how I reacted to their infirmities with impatience, to their limited education with visible shame, even disgust. I had more empathy for a total stranger than for the people who made my life possible.

My father died in 1986. My mother in 2003. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “I’m sorry!” I wanted my younger self to be the kind of son who says “It’s okay, Dad. I’ll help you.”

I sat quietly for a while, silently wishing I had done things differently. Silently committing to doing things differently in the future.

seat-8a

FAQ: Can our WOL Circle meet virtually?

Last week, a member of the WOL Facebook community posted what turns out to be a common question:

“We are an organization with many remote employees, including myself. Has anyone done WOL using technology like Skype, Zoom or GoToMeeting? Eager to learn from your success.”

The community responded quickly with a resounding “yes.” 

“We've done 10+ circles all via Zoom. They've all been successful.”
“Conducted entirely by Zoom and it worked great.”
“I always had remote participants in my few WOL circles. Video calls were made with Skype, Zoom or Hangout.”
“I am currently in my third circle. All have been virtual on Zoom.”

While it was clear that virtual meetings were both possible and popular, were they as good as in-person meetings?

 A WOL Circle celebrating and reflecting in Week 12

A few tips for your virtual Circle

I’ve been in both in-person and virtual WOL Circles, and they worked equally well. In-person meetings can have a charm all their own. A meeting in a cafe, for example, feels different than a videoconference. But participating in a virtual Circle makes it possible to include people in other cities and countries. That can increase the diversity of your circle and make it more likely to be effective. Virtual Circles can also take less time, since they don’t require extra time to go to and from the meeting. 

How do you meet?

Almost all my virtual Circles met via video. Those that used only audio felt less intimate, especially at first, though I still enjoyed it.   All the popular video services work well enough. My personal favorite is Zoom as the quality of the sound and picture are remarkably good, and it’s particularly easy to use.

“It was like we were in the same room together. The conversations were just as real and emotional and inspiring as they could be in person.”

Communicating between meetings

It’s common for virtual Circles to maintain some kind of backchannel for communicating between meetings. This is a good practice in any Circle, and may be even more important in virtual groups to reinforce the bonds between members. 

“In my current circle we usea private Facebook group for information exchange and communication during the week.”
“We also share and communicate via Slack during the week. (Any non-email platform would work similarly.)”
“We also stayed in touch by email throughout the program and shared lots of links and ideas, and still check in from time to time even though it's been over two months since it ended.”

The most important tip for your Circle

Search the Internet for “how to run a virtual meeting” and you’ll find plenty of tips. There’s also a list of “Tips for a Successful Circle” in the Getting Started section of the guides. The best advice I’ve heard, though, is from a TED talk on “10 rules for a better conversation,” and they apply online as well as in person. 

The most important bit of advice? Pay attention. 

Your attention is one of the most precious gifts you have to offer. If you don’t pay attention, then none of the other tips matter much. It's when you give your attention freely during your meeting, actively listening and participating, that you can connect and grow. 

Do you have something else you would recommend? Or another question you’d like to see answered? Post a comment and I’ll include the best suggestions in version 4.0 of the Circle guides in 2017.

The elephant at the piano

As a child, I saw a Gary Larson cartoon that I still remember, because it captured a feeling I had even then. An elephant, on stage in a crowded concert hall, is sitting at a piano, his ridiculously large legs dangling by his side. He’s thinking to himself, “What am I doing here?”

The Far Side® and the Larson® signature are registered trademarks of FarWorks, Inc.

This cartoon captures the feeling you may have when you’re faced with something new. You’re unprepared and anxious, and may literally feel like you’re in the wrong room, that you’re not supposed to be there.

I’ve had this feeling so many times that I now recognize it as familiar. I had it before my first attempts at public speaking, and publishing something I had written. I had it when I was supposed to “manage” other people, and when I had my first child.

In developing my latest habit, though, I’m learning a better way to approach new things.

The elephant on the yoga mat

I still remember my first yoga class. It was over a decade ago. Trying to impress my girlfriend (now my wife), I went with her to an intermediate class. It didn’t go well.

While she was effortlessly doing all the poses, I couldn’t even understand the words the teacher was saying. “Downward dog?” “Chataranga?” He kept telling me to breathe in and out in sync with my movement, but I gave up trying to follow him. I was happy to breathe at all! I kept looking at my watch. “How much longer?”

Although I knew the benefits of yoga were undeniable, I couldn’t help but feel like the elephant at the piano, that this new experience just “wasn’t me.” Every few years, prodded by my wife, I might try again. But the same feelings would crop up.

Lessons from an inflexible yogi

Now a decade later, with my own yoga mat and a regular habit, I’m learning how to deal with that “elephant at the piano” feeling. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Start where you are. Instead of comparing myself to my wife, an accomplished expert, I should just compare myself to myself, and focus on my personal development.

It’s a practice that takes practice. The goal isn’t to “be good at yoga” so much as it is to practice yoga. The doing is the point. Any advance I might make in my mental or physical health will only come as a consequence of practicing. 

Pay attention! When my mind wanders, I miss the teacher’s instructions and stand there dumbly, looking around the room so I can see what I’m supposed to do. Or, worse, I simply fall down. Nothing teaches me to be present like trying to balance on one leg.

“Do what is accessible to you.” This is one of my favorite expressions that teachers use. While many personal development programs seem bent on suffering - “No pain, no gain!” - yoga teachers provide a safe environment for me to try new things, to literally and figuratively stretch myself.

The next time you’re the elephant at the piano

When I enter the yoga studio now, I know I’m in the right room. Not because I’m an expert, but because I’ve accepted that I’m a beginner, that I can make progress at my own pace. I’ve accepted that, with effort and attention, I will gradually improve and realize a range of benefits.

The next time you’re anxious at trying something new - “I can’t play this thing! I’m a flutist, for crying out loud.” - take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to start where you are.

With practice and dedication, your initial anxiety will be replaced with calm and self-compassion, and eventually lead to new feelings of confidence and clarity.

The engineer who Works Out Loud

Vincent has been working in a big German company for more than a decade, mostly in a manufacturing plant and now in a quality management role. Our first interaction was when he sent me a message on LinkedIn, telling me he was enjoying the book.

Later, he joined a Working Out Loud Circle, and he wrote me again to say he “can already see some improvements.” I thanked him, replied with some questions, and that led to an ongoing exchange. With his permission, I wanted to share some of his answers below.

As you read them, notice how his original goal is quite simple: he wants to use some of the new collaboration tools at work. Yet as he takes steps towards his goal - practicing making contributions and deepening relationships at work - he sees how he can apply his new habits and mindset to other goals. 

His last sentence is full of hope and possibility - and confidence. 

Why did you join a WOL Circle? 

I joined because I wanted to learn and improve myself as a professional and a person. I learned about it and as I was disconnected from social media (latecomer for many good and bad reasons) I thought in the first place that it could help me to reconnect (Which it did!).  

What was your goal in your circle? 

My goal is: 'I want to set up a personal blog, which enables me to share my work with others, to give back to communities that will enable me to connect with people I don't know yet.’

What did you expect to get out of it? 

I was expecting to deepen my social media understanding and how to use it in a professional setting. Also to have my own blog to share work and ideas that comes up.  I started a personal blog on our internal company social network. At first, I thought about sharing only technical content I created to help others improve quicker and avoid the traps I've been in. Some other ideas are starting to come up…It’s interesting to see how it develops, how ideas pop up all alone.  

I also created connections I didn't have…and reconnected with people. So it's great, because I start to have a solid experience with social media, where I was feeling lost before, didn't know what to do with it and how to behave. 

How does this apply at work? How might it help you be a better engineer?

I'm in a department of quality experts, mostly much older. An official target of this job is to improve the processes, challenge them, and introduce social media for collaboration with the other departments. 

That's where WOL kicks in. I will have to set communities and improve the collaboration between QM and the plants that applies the standards defined by the department. We also need to speak about the standards within our division, post them in our blog, and collaborate with other divisions with the same specialties. I think of promoting it to the Deployment of Business Excellence team in our division. It would be a fantastic complement to introduce social media for the managers. Also to promote WOL for team initiatives inside my department.  

I personally consider that when you share your knowledge, your work with others, in the end you are helping others with your work, then becoming more sure of your knowledge. It allows you to take a step back and improve your practice. It will allow me to participate, confront my ideas with others, and then create a 'virtuous circle' of questioning myself. Keeps me humble, feet on the ground, then more open minded. I really think that networking and sharing makes you a better 1. Person, 2. Professional. 

What might you do differently in the future? Asked another way...what changed for you or about you? 

I came from this restricted vision to something broader. For example, I post other things than my work. I post thoughts, advice, experiences. On a personal aspect, I'm less worried to post my thinking publicly, to praise the work of others, to create contacts and invite these people in my network when I feel I know them. A clear enabler to the improvement of my network through social media and 'gift' sharing.  

In the future? I'll extend this to my utilization of social media out of my company. I will try to become a circle moderator, as I think I can handle it. Also, I'll surely join other circles, but perhaps with goals more connected to my personal (selfish?) aspirations. That changed for me, I have personal wills that are sleeping, time will come when I'll need to wake them.  

Why Socrates thought writing was a bad idea

I hadn’t expected Socrates to appear in a book titled, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. But there he was, on page 25. 

The author, Nancy Baym, was quoting one of his famous dialogs in The Phaedrus, from about 370 BC. He was telling a story about the invention of writing, and I was surprised at how one of the leading thinkers in history could have such an opinion:

“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Socrates wasn’t wrong. (The way we use our capacity for memory has changed fundamentally from the days we recited 12,000-line poems by heart.) But he also couldn’t foresee the wide range of benefits that came from a different form of communication.

It turns out that’s how we generally react to almost all new forms of communications, whether it’s the printing press, telegraph, telephones, television, email, texting, and now the Internet in general. When I introduced an enterprise social networks at work, many colleagues in our global, 100,000-person company longed for the day when “people would just talk to each other.”

“Throughout the history of electronic communications, some have celebrated the ability to form new relationships across time and space, but others have seen it…as offering pale substitutes for authentic connection.”

I’m no wiser than Socrates. I recently caught myself proclaiming, for example, that “Snapchat is ridiculous!” without ever having tried it or endeavoring to learn why so many people find it useful. I’m horrified at how my children use their phones. “It’s addictive!” “It’s ruining their attention span!” “It’s rude!”

Is that true? Maybe. But it’s also true that the constant interactions they have with each other and with their friends have created a feeling of genuine closeness and familiarity I can’t deny.

The lesson for me applies to life in general: Be open to possibilities. Approach new things with more curiosity and less judgment.

I think it’s time for another session with my favorite social media adviser, the one who helped me get started on Instagram. She’s turning 12 next week. 

Socrates

Tiny miracles

I told him, “It’s a miracle that you and I are speaking on the phone right now.”

He works in a large company I hadn’t heard of, in a city in Germany I hadn’t heard of, and yet there we were, talking about helping each other and about ways we could collaborate.

How? 

It started because he was unhappy in his job. His wife suggested that he join a Working Out Loud Circle. She had been part of one at her company, found it useful, and thought it would help him. It did. He wound up finding a job he loves, and kindly sent me an email telling me that. He also said he would like to spread Working Out Loud at his new company.

I had similar kinds of experiences this week, all tiny miracles to me. Like when someone in a Mongolian mining company reached out to me for more information about what I do. Or when I was on the phone with a group at the University of Nebraska, and with the Department of Agriculture in Canberra, Australia. Or when students in Austria who are reading the book for their course wound up interacting with me on Twitter. (One student gave the book to her brother and he and I connected too.)

This post isn’t about marketing or commercial success. (None of these interactions involved money.) It’s about possibility. It’s about increasing the chances of coming into contact with other people that help me develop, or make me feel fulfilled, or, yes, provide me with additional opportunities to make a living. 

Would you like more tiny miracles in your life? Perhaps you want more serendipity or more learning. Maybe it’s about more opportunities to do what you enjoy doing, or about feeling a greater sense of purpose.

You increase the chances of any and all of these things happening as you purposefully build a broad and diverse network, deepening relationships with people based on your contributions.

Some miracles just happen. Some, though, need a little help from you. Start practicing today.

The stories all around you

I must have walked by this gated section of the park over a thousand times. It’s at the bottom of Manhattan, right near Castle Clinton. You can see the World Trade Center from there, and the Hudson River. You’ll pass tourists lining up to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, and street vendors and performance artists vying for their attention.

The entrance to the park is marked only by an open gate and a worn path. This time, I walked inside.

battery-urban-farm

Once you cross the threshold, it immediately feels different. Quieter, if that’s even possible. Cloistered might be a better word.

I was alone. The first thing I noticed was a small vegetable garden, with eggplants and peppers and basil all lined up in neat rows. I later learned it's for school children to learn about food and farming.

A few more steps brought me into a sparse, open space. Amid craggy trees, there was what seemed to be a maze outlined by stones in the ground, filled with clover in between. There were a few empty wooden benches. Near one of them was a marker, badly weathered and barely legible, commemorating a gift from the Mayor of Jerusalem to the Mayor of New York City in the 1970s.

I walked around the edge of the maze, and something on the ground caught my eye. A small engraved stone. It looked as if it had just been placed there, at the base of a small tree that also looked freshly planted.

My heart sank as I read what was there. A story told in five words, a birthdate, and two tiny footprints. “139 magical days we shared.” I felt a sense of the parents’ love, joy, and anguish. The weight of their loss, and of a lifetime of remembering.

139-magical-days-we-shared

I wanted to know more. Why was it here? Who were these people? What happened to the child? I felt like I was intruding on someone else’s very personal tragedy, but I took a photograph anyway. I wanted to remember.

I walked slowly past the small farm and out of the park. Back among the tourists and the hum of the city, I wondered how many other stories I had passed by that day, waiting for the moment when I would be open to seeing them.

Leveraging the 1% rule

While more organizations are investing in digital tools so people can collaborate, most of them find themselves confronting the same obstacle: participation inequality. 

If you’re a member of an online community, you’re already seen this. The term was introduced in 2006 by the Nielsen Norman group, known for their work on intranet design and usability, in an article titled, “The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities.” It’s often generalized to “the 1% rule.” 

“In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.”

So what do you do if your organization is spending money on tools for people to collaborate, and yet so few people are contributing?

Attempting to change the rule

There is a lot of good advice on driving adoption of new tools. I’ve even written some myself

For example, you might focus on training, so people know how to use the tools. Or you could start with processes, so use of the new tools is embedded in the work people are doing. You may even focus on a new class of professionals, community managers, whose role is to encourage online participation. 

All of these are good ideas. In practice, though, they don’t seem to be enough to help organizations realize the potential of collaborative technologies.

What if, instead of trying to get everyone to participate, you focused on helping 1% participate in a way that was more effective? In a way that could spread more readily?

A different approach

You can do this by spreading Working Out Loud Circles, the peer support groups in which individuals choose a goal and deepen relationships with people related to that goal. (There’s a variation of this process for shared goals, teams, and leaders too.) 

The Circle Guides help individuals use the tools in ways that are intrinsically appealing, ways that more clearly answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

When I work with organizations, we customize the public guides so they are specific to the organization’s goals, culture, and technology. We use their examples in the exercises, highlighting different ways to contribute ideas, issues, and improvements.

The Circles are still confidential, and they’re still designed to tap into each person’s sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It’s just that the customized guides make it easy for individuals to know what to do and to feel positive about doing it

The Circle Guides essentially encode collaborative behaviors into a self-directed social learning process. The Circle members’ personal experiences, as survey results show, help them see these behaviors as good for them and good for the organization. The personal fulfillment they experience, plus the repeated practice in the Circle, help the new behaviors become habitual.

When 1% of your organization Works Out Loud

“Good for them,” you might say. “But what about everyone else who isn’t in a Circle?”

This is where the leverage comes in. 

By equipping your 1% with the set of specific collaborative behaviors in the Circle Guides, you’re making those behaviors visible. Rather than just hoping for meaningful contributions, you’ve helped people make them in a systematic way. 

Those contributions - sharing work that can be helpful to others -  are what the other 99% will be seeing. That social proof will help other people know what to do, and motivate yet more people to join circles, so the 1% becomes 2%, then 3%. (One company approaching their 100th Circle observed how Circle participants were using their social intranet: “Many of them we hadn’t seen before.”)

Because of participation inequality, even 1% of your company working in an open, networked way can make a difference in your company’s culture, and can unlock more connections, contributions, and collaboration from the rest.

The golden ticket you’ve been holding all along

When Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory came out in 1971, I was seven years old. Even then, one scene struck me as particularly strange and uplifting. Grandpa Joe has been bedridden for twenty years, along with his wife and another old couple. He wants the best for his grandson, Charlie, but doesn’t feel there’s much he can do. Still, he offers Charlie his tobacco money so the boy can buy some chocolate and have a chance to escape, to dream, if only for a moment.

Grandpa Joe’s outlook on life is clear in the song he sings.

“I never thought my life could be

Anything but catastrophe

I never had a chance to shine

Never a happy song to sing”

But when Charlie unwraps the chocolate and there’s a glimmer of gold inside, everything changes. Grandpa Joe undergoes a transformation, getting up and dancing around the room. “I haven’t done this for twenty years!”

“But suddenly I begin to see

A bit of good luck for me

'Cause I've got a golden ticket

I've got a golden twinkle in my eye

'Cause I've got a golden ticket

I've got a golden chance to make my way

And with a golden ticket, it's a golden day"

your-golden-ticket

Here’s the thing. The ticket didn’t change his age or health or circumstances. What changed was his perspective, something he could have changed any time.

It’s hard to do. When upsetting things happen to me, my tendency is to react. I’ll curse my luck or myself, and my reactions color other areas of my life, including my relationships.

But I’m discovering I have more control than I thought. More and more, when something happens, I remember to take deep breaths, allow my initial feelings to take their course, and then reflect on what to do. I try to think about the many golden tickets I’m holding, the many reasons for joy. Sometimes I even think of Grandpa Joe and I sing the song (loudly). It takes practice, but when I remember to do these things, my perspective changes, and I feel happier.

Next time you think, “I never had a chance to shine, Never a happy song to sing,” try and reflect on the golden tickets you’re holding. Choose to dance around the bed.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AicW3Xp9EM[/embed]

Working Out Loud over email or coffee

“You can’t do that!” he said.

I was explaining to a small audience that Working Out Loud doesn’t require you to use social media. It helps, of course, but I told them you could use traditional channels, including email and talking over coffee, to share your work in a way that helps others. The person next to me objected, somewhat emphatically. 

Here’s why he’s missing the point, and why it matters. 

The real reason you Work Out Loud…

There are many benefits to using social platforms, whether it’s your social intranet at work or Twitter, LinkedIn, and the many other public platforms. Sharing your work there amplifies who you are and what you do, extends your reach, and expands your set of contributions and how you can offer them.

But using social platforms is not the point of Working Out Loud. Rather, using the tools is in service of much more important things: deeper relationships and feelings of self-efficacy, even happiness. It’s why I extended the concept of Working Out Loud to include these five elements

  1. Relationships
  2. Generosity
  3. Visible Work
  4. Purposeful Discovery
  5. Growth Mindset

The real reason you Work Out Loud is that deeper relationships help you be more effective and give you access to more ideas and opportunities. Each step you take in building those relationships helps you feel more empowered and connected, tapping into your intrinsic motivation.

…and why your organization wants you to

The real reason your organization wants you to Work Out Loud is not to have a more active intranet. It’s to have a workforce and culture that are more open, connected, and collaborative, to create a place where work is more effective and fulfilling. 

Ultimately, Working Out Loud helps improve how people relate to each other and to the work they do. 

You can see this in these survey results, for example, from an organization that has close to 100 Working Out Loud Circles and asked participants about their experience. (A survey at another company in a different country produced similar results.)

  • 98% said it helps the organization develop into “a highly connected company in the digital age.”
  • 91% said it helped them build networks that are more effective and purposeful.
  • 91% said it enriched their daily lives.

Start where you are

So why is it important that people that people can Work Out Loud over email and coffee? Because that’s what most people are already comfortable doing. 

I was at a corporate event where Working Out Loud was the topic, and there was a demonstration of the company’s social intranet. The young woman began enthusiastically. “The first thing you do when you’re Working Out Loud,” she said, “is write a blog.”

I winced. The percentage of people of comfortable blogging is in the single digits, and more than 90% of those who start a blog abandon it within a year. By exhorting people to start there, you’ve alienated the vast majority of those you’re trying to help.

Instead, help people start where they are. If you’re already active on their organization’s corporate network, or you’re using Twitter and LinkedIn, that’s great. But if those things scare you off, then shrink the change and start by using what you’re comfortable using.

This way, you’re more likely to make progress, gradually developing the habit of Working Out Loud. Over time, you’ll start to frame your goals in terms of other people and contributions you can make to them. You'll cultivate the mindset of the five elements. You may even explore the use of other tools.

Small steps, practiced over time, with feedback and peer support, can lead to wonderful places. But only if you take that first step.