How working out loud circles could transform your organization

There’s a growing chasm between what executives say they want for their organizations and the experience of their employees. If you interview management at any large company, for example, they’ll talk about their desire for building an open, collaborative culture, the importance of being a learning organization, and the need to develop talent. Now talk to individuals working in that organization and you’ll discover a competitive environment, an inability to find even basic information, and a vast number of people who simply don’t care enough to get better at what they do.

It’s not that the executives are disingenuous. It’s just that the expensive, top-down change programs they roll out - for cultural change, collaboration, talent management - simply don’t work.

So here’s a different approach, one that’s employee-centered, self-organizing, and free.

How it would work

Working Out Loud CirclesI first described working out loud circles a few months ago. They’re groups of 4-5 people who meet over 12 weeks to help each other accomplish a personal goal by working out loud. Over that time, through actual practice, circle members learn specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

Our experience with the first few circles has been extremely positive and that’s led to the idea of having entire organizations embrace them. To do that, here are the five most important things you would need to know about implementing circles in your organization:

  • Circles are employee-driven. It’s key that employees choose to participate, work on a goal that’s important to them, and trust that what happens inside the circle is confidential. If you impose manager approval or reporting requirements, you won’t realize the benefits.
  • Circles are open to anyone. Since circle members will be practicing basic 21st-century skills, access should not be restricted to only those with a certain title or those deemed to have potential. The most important criterion is the willingness to make an effort to learn.
  • Circles meet 12 times for one hour. These meetings could be outside normal business hours if necessary, depending on the organization. Individuals will also need to do work related to their goal in between meetings.
  • Instructions are provided in Circle Kits. The kits are concise guides for running each of the 12 meetings, including simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • All support for the circles is online and free. We’re developing a site that will host a rich FAQ and a range of other resources for developing specific skills. The site will also host stories and feedback from individuals and other circles.

How management could help

People could form circles outside of their company, of course. Between the Working Out Loud book due this September and the Circle Kits being released soon, independent groups would have the necessary resources to be successful. [UPDATE: the book will be available in April 2015. The circle guides are here.]

But forming circles inside a company would have a number of advantages. The people there already have much in common, making it easier to form connections and even exchange their circle experiences. Also, if the organization uses an enterprise social network like Jive, Yammer, IBM Connections, Socialcast, Podio or similar offering, people will have a convenient platform to work out loud. Employees who work out loud at work are personally more effective, help the firm capture knowledge, and make it easier for others to access that knowledge.

While the circles are employee-centered and the resources I mentioned are free, there are still things that management could do to help. For example, by endorsing circles as an employee development offering or promoting them at employee networking events, they’d remove any doubts about whether employees are allowed to form them. They could provide time to participate in them, reducing possible interference from middle managers. They could motivate more people to participate by sharing stories of individuals and teams that are working out loud for their own benefit and that of the company.

The benefits: collaboration, learning, and engagement 

Working out loud combines the age-old principles for building meaningful relationships with the modern abilities to share your work, get feedback, and interact with others who share your interests. It wraps all of this in a mindset of generosity. You share and connect not to show off or create a personal brand but to genuinely help other people. If you were to describe someone who worked out loud, you might say she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful.

The circles would help your employees to feel like that, to be like that. The practice over time and the peer support would enable people to finally break free of old ways of working and of thinking about work. They could finally develop new habits at work that tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and relatedness. Doing so in a visible way, together with the support of the firm, would accelerate the spread of these positive behaviors across the organization, changing the culture.

At a minimum, some circle members might learn to more readily search for people and content related to their work. Many will build a larger set of more meaningful relationships at work, enabling them to collaborate more effectively. Still others will feel, like Barbara from last week’s story, that “working out loud changed my life.” Combined, all that learning would fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to the organization.