Exhaling on the scale

The first time I noticed it, I smiled and thought, What a strange thing to do. Then I noticed it again the next day, and realized it was an unconscious habit. Every morning, before stepping on the scale, I breath out deeply, as if that will make a difference in the results. 

It doesn’t make any sense. Yet I think I figured out why I do it: it gives me the perception of control without having to do the more challenging work required to affect the outcome. It’s as if I’m telling myself, “Well, I haven’t exercised for the last few days, and I ate and drank too much last night…but I can do this!” Then I slowly blow out a gust of air. Whoooooooosh.

It would be funny except that I do something similar when it comes to work. 

Like many people, I have a fuzzy notion of the important things I’d like to accomplish. Yet there’s usually enough uncertainty or doubt surrounding those things, or they may seem too big, that they trigger anxiety and resistance. To deal with that, I would find myself filling my day with small tasks and activities, chipping away at an infinite todo list. I would feel busy, but all I really accomplished was avoiding the difficult work required to do something meaningful. 

So lately I’m trying something new. Every Monday I have a short call with a friend, and we each share the top three things we need to do during the upcoming week to make progress towards our big goals. We don’t talk about everything we might do or could do. We just list three specific things we will do, work that will move us in the right direction.

On the next call, we’ll talk about what happened in the past week, discuss adjustments we might make, and share our goals for the following week. There’s no judgment or competition. Just learning and encouragement to focus and to keep going. The mutual accountability helps us maintain both motivation and momentum.

A nice phrase to describe what we’re sharing is our “essential intent,” a phrase from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. The phrase is usually applied to longer timeframes, but I’ve found it useful as a way to describe nearer-term goals, too. What is the essential thing you intend to do this week/month/year/life? Think of it as a way to distill the truly important from the sea of possible activities, and to state it in a way that’s both actionable and measurable.

Reflect for a moment on your own big goals for your work and life. Do you know your essential intent for this month or this week? For tomorrow? Are you doing work what matters, or are you exhaling on the scale? 


New: Version 5 of the WOL Circle Guides

She said it in such a serious, deadpan way that I knew she wasn’t kidding. “Please,” she told me, “don’t change the guides.”

That was Katharina Krentz from Bosch. She had created materials related to each of the 12 weeks, and changes would mean a lot of extra work. The translations, now in eight other languages, would also have to change. Besides, she pointed out, with more than 500 Circles at Bosch and over 5000 members in their internal WOL Group, there was no need to change anything.

“Yes, and…,” I thought. Since the last update, there have been so many useful resources I’ve wanted to add. And the new, professionally-designed materials - videos, a journal, and soon a workbook - made the old version of the Guides look like, well, like I designed them myself. 

So I tried to modify the material in a way that won’t cause undo work for people already using them, and yet will still be a significant improvement. The result is version 5 of the WOL Circle Guides.

What’s new?

The biggest change is that I added a new section to the website: workingoutloud.com/resources. I removed the lists of links in the PDFs, and created a webpage for each week that includes a wider range of resources - media, examples, more exercises, more FAQs. This is much more flexible, and makes it possible for me to regularly add new resources that the WOL community finds useful. (I especially enjoyed creating a new photo gallery in Week 12.)

The guides have also been professionally redesigned, using a new style and layout that matches the journal and the other materials I’m working on. I find the new design much cleaner and easier to read. 

The final change is to the licensing language that was on each section of the guides. Older versions used a restrictive Creative Commons license that confused some people, especially the "non-commercial" part. That has been replaced with standard copyright language that’s more precise about what companies can and can’t do. To me, it doesn't change what organizations have already been doing. My intention is just to make it clearer.

What’s next?

Today, I published the English version of the new Guides, and German will be available soon. (I’ll be sure to create German versions of the Resources pages too.) Then I’ll apply the new design to all the translations.

With the maturity of the Circle Guides comes the chance to develop new products and new practices. Here are a few I’m working on:

  • The WOL Circle Video Series & companion journal are being used in company pilots now. They’re part of a new WOL Library that includes assets that make Circles more effective and help companies spread them. (The new “What is Working Out Loud?” video will give you a feel for what the videos look like. It’s also subtitled in German and Turkish, with more languages coming soon.)

  • A beautiful new workbook is under development, and will be for sale via the website. It will be a hardcover book that includes the guides, extra content, and the chance to do the exercises and capture your progress in one place. 

  • The WOL: Self-Care pilot is coming to an end. I’m grateful to the 100 people who participated, and will incorporate what we learned into a next version of the WOL:SC guides that I’ll publish in May. 

  • WOL: Purpose, another new practice, and experiments in healthcare and manufacturing are all just beginning. I’m extremely excited about each of them.

The only reason any of this work is possible is because of you and the WOL Community. I’m grateful to all of you who’ve tried a Circle and those who’ve generously spread the word.

I hope you like the new Guides. If you’re in the middle of a Circle, you can begin using them right away. If you have a resource you think should be included in the new section on the website, please send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. I’ll be glad to hear from you.

Clink on the image to see the new Getting Started section

Clink on the image to see the new Getting Started section

A letter from my future self

I’ve been meaning to write a new letter for years now, but something inside me resisted it. Perhaps I’ve been afraid of what’s ahead, or afraid that writing down what success will look like is presumptuous, something not yet earned. 

Recently, however, someone posted that this letter exercise in Week 7 was hard for them, and that gave me the nudge I needed. I thought, If I can’t do it, how can I ask others to try? So here it is. To help me write my letter, I put the timeframe further out than usual. That made it safer for me somehow.

The instructions say to write this letter for yourself, not to impress someone else. That’s what I tried to do. I share it here to offer another public example of what such a letter might look like, and also to serve as a visible reminder of what I aspire to accomplish.

April 24, 2034

Dear John,

Well, here we are: 2034. It’s a number I thought I’d only see in Science Fiction stories. (I still remember when Orwell’s 1984 was a distant future.) Now I’m 70 years old. More precisely, we are 70. Congratulations to both of us for making it this far.

A lot has happened, some of which you hoped for, and some which you didn’t dare to dream about at the time. Brace yourself, though. It wasn’t easy.

Our family is doing well. The kids are great. As you grew to be more comfortable in your own skin, that made it easier for others to be comfortable with and around you. It took much longer than we both might have hoped, but you made steady progress. The yoga and meditation helped. The move to Japan helped a lot, too. Life is simpler here. You became clearer about what’s important and why.

I remember how fragile you were when you started on your own. You were so worried all the time, about making a living, about being a good provider, about your status after having lost your job. If it wasn’t for your wife’s strength, support, and love, you never would have made it through this period. Be good to her.

The funny part is that things picked up when you stopped trying so hard to make it all work. When you focused on the contribution instead - on making things other people found genuinely helpful and useful - all of the other things you wanted flowed from that. 

To be sure, there were blow-ups. Some were near fatal to your business and movement. But then someone would send you a note, saying that you made a difference, and that was enough for you to keep going. The kindness of your WOL community was a source of strength. Never underestimate how important they are. 

A key turning point was around 2019 or 2020. Back then, you were like a little boy on a diving board, looking down, uncertain whether to make the leap or climb back down to earth. Some big companies were Working Out Loud, but you were cautious, always unsure or afraid of whether the little success you had would last. 

Then you leapt. You started to work with people in factories, hospitals, and schools, looking to help people who need it most. You expanded WOL to include practicing self-compassion, and enabling people to make the work they do more purposeful.

In the last fifteen years, you reached a million people. That’s a big number In ways large and small, you changed how they related to themselves, to others, and to they work they do. You can let yourself be proud of that.

If I have any advice for you, it’s this: Think ten times bigger. A hundred times bigger. Worry less about making mistakes, or about “who am I to attempt such a thing?” Dare to make a difference. Not for yourself or for your business, but for other people. The world could still use it, maybe now more than ever.

With love and respect.

Your Future Self

Screen Shot 2019-03-05 at 3.44.53 PM.png

Perfect just the way you are. And...

That’s the thing about Zen masters. You never really know when they’re joking.

Shunryu Suzuki is best known for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and one of the most influential Zen organizations in the US. In the late 1960s, he was giving a lecture on “non-gaining mind” in which he was emphasizing practice for its own sake, as opposed to some benefit in the future. The striving and clinging to expectations not only distorted your practice but could also leave you miserable. 

“You become very idealistic with some notion or ideal set up by yourself and you strive for attaining or fulfilling that notion or goal. But as I always say this is very absurd because when you become idealistic in your practice you have gaining idea within yourself, so by the time you attain some stage your gaining idea will create another ideal…Because your attainment is always ahead of you, you are always sacrificing yourself for some ideal. So this is very absurd. “

A student asked Suzuki to clarify what he meant, so he simplified it.

“You are perfect just the way you are. And there’s room for improvement!”

Although I’m not sure if Suzuki was kidding, something clicked for me when I read that. I had always thought that being content with the way things are would be a sign of laziness, something not to be tolerated. My way to motivate myself has been to keep focusing on the improvement, the thing to be fixed or made better.

But as I get older, I see it only leads to a life of never-good-enough. You race towards a finish line that doesn’t exist, unable to complete the simple declaration: “I will be happy when…”

What if you could tap into all the benefits of getting better without the stress and drama? What if you accepted yourself exactly as you are - and others exactly as they are - and still remained open and curious about further development?

An example of kintsugi, or making art from damaged pottery - Photo credit: June’s Child

New video: “What is Working Out Loud?"

It’s less than four minutes long, and is part of four hours of video content in a WOL library I’m piloting with several companies. There are subtitles in German, with more languages coming soon. 

When I shared it in the WOL groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, the reactions were exactly what I was hoping for. 

“Already added it to our ESN WOL Group”

“Sharing it next week in our WOL community”

“This video will help us to make the WOL movement even stronger!”

I hope you find it useful.

Answers to "What's WOL?" "How does a Circle work?" “What’s in it for me & for the company?”

Everybody Matters

“Wait,” I said, somewhat surprised, “I think I have that book.”

My wife was relating a story she heard on a podcast with Simon Sinek, the author and leadership consultant. He was talking about examples of enlightened management, and he mentioned a manufacturing company that refused to lay off employees during a downturn. The company’s somewhat strange name, “Barry-Wehmiller,” caught my attention. I went to get my copy of Everybody Matters, written by their CEO, and started reading.

Barry-Wehmiller is a 130-year old manufacturing company, made up of 11,000 employees who design and build machines that do things most of us never think about, like injecting shampoo into bottles, or making toothpaste boxes. That might not sound particularly interesting, but their financial performance is on par with Warren Buffet’s. 

More importantly, when it comes to how their employees relate to each other and to the work they do, Everybody Matters serves as an inspiring example of the way things could be. 

“Enron had wonderful cultural statements too”

Like many CEOs, Bob Chapman worked with his management team to craft a set of management principles that could guide the company. Once they did, a division president pointed out that Enron, an iconic symbol of greed, abuse, and mistreatment of its employees, also had a similar document. Here’s an excerpt:

“We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here. We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.”

Then she asked, “How is this not just going to be something that’s on the wall?”

Doing what most managers don’t do

The answer was in how Bob Chapman related to employees. When he visited a factory, he would ask questions - and he would listen to the answers. What he heard often gave him ideas for experiments to try and changes to make. Then he would ask more questions. How do you feel about these programs? What are we doing that doesn’t match up to what we say?

Workers were understandably skeptical. One factory worked asked, “If I tell you the truth, will I still have a job tomorrow?” Then he made this observation.

“Well, I see you have the word ‘trust’ near the top of this document…

Why is it when they go to the office and I go into the plant, we are treated completely differently? If the lady in accounting wanted to call home and see if her kids made it to school, she could just pick up the phone and call; I had to wait until I had a break and then use a pay phone. If I have a doctor’s appointment, I have to get my supervisor to sign off on my card and I get docked for the time; she just goes to her appointment. I had to wait for the break bell to get a cup of coffee or to use the bathroom. 

You trust them to decide when to get a cup of coffee or call home, but you don’t trust me.”

The CEO was taken aback. “How could we treat our people - thoughtful, responsible adults - with such disrespect and distrust?” Chapman, despite the objection of the personnel director, had the time clocks removed from all of their operations.

In another plant, he noticed people working in the parts storeroom were fully enclosed in a metal cage. He asked, “What did those people do wrong?” and was told, “Well, we always secure the inventory. It’s the responsible thing to do.” The cage was removed.

It wasn’t a document or set of values that made a difference. It was the actions and changes over time. The more that management listened, the more opportunities they discovered to build trust and a sense of shared humanity. 

“Our eyes were opening to things we had never noticed before. People came to understand that we truly cared and would not just pay lip service but really listen to them.”

“I’m more excited about where I’m at in my life”

As a manufacturing company, there was of course a focus on quality, and they implemented Lean Manufacturing principles. Yet Barry-Wehmiller expanded the focus beyond reducing costs and jobs to improving employee satisfaction and safety. That shift in focus changed the quality initiatives from a threat into an opportunity to contribute. But they had decades of cultural inertia to overcome.

Larry, one of their long-time workers, shared his story of how, early in his career, he had an idea for improving things.

“I think if we just change this…” 

The supervisor interrupted him: “Stop right there. We don’t pay you to think. Go back to your machine and make the part right this time.”

From that moment on, Larry didn’t share any more ideas for improvement with the organization. He maintained his silence for forty-two years!”

Randall’s experience was similar. 

“We had four supervisors who circled throughout the work area all day, making sure everyone was working. It was a very aggressive environment. You came to work every day, didn’t ask any questions or make any waves, and made sure that you got your work done.”

The CEO asked Steve, an employee in a Green Bay, Wisconsin plant, about what work was like for him. 

“Do you know what it’s like, Bob, to work in a place where you show up every morning, you punch a card, you go to your station, you’re told what to do, you’re not given the tools you need to do what you need to do, you get ten things right and nobody says a word, and you get one thing wrong and you get chewed out? You feel empty. That was basically every day.”

But over time, the approach to work changed - and so did the workers. The changes even rippled outside of work, affecting their home life.

“I’ve been part of making things better. People ask me what I think; they listen to me, and I can have a chance to impact things including my own job. When I feel respected and know I’ve done a good day’s work, I feel pretty good about myself, and I find when I feel better about myself, I’m nicer to my wife, and when I’m nicer to my wife, she talks to me.”

“I went from the guy who didn’t want to do it to now teaching it! Everything about me is different, and everything in my life has changed….It’s opened my eyes to the possibility that even though I’m fifty-two years old, I can still make a difference in the world. I’m more excited about where I’m at in my life than I’ve ever been.”

Larry, after seeing that ideas were taken seriously and implemented, stood up at a continuous improvement event and said he wanted to be an ambassador of the program because he saw that “everybody was treated with respect and dignity, something that’s too often lost in our organization.”

Now what?

The quotes about employees feeling like cogs in a machine reminded me of the quotes from Studs Terkel’s classic, Working, published in 1973. In Out of the Crisis in 1980, Deming railed against common management practices at that time, and argued for giving employees a voice and the opportunity to take pride in their work.

Decades later, not much has changed. Perhaps Barry-Wehmiller is just an exception to the rule. Perhaps the gap between where most companies are and where we need to be - in any industry - seems like too big of a leap, so we never take a step.

My hope is that Working Out Loud can help get us moving in the right direction. The people in these companies deserve better. We all deserve better.

If you want to spread WOL in your organization, consider this

Bosch & Daimler quickly recognized they would need help. The grassroots WOL movements they built had taken root, leading to support from management including board members. But how could they scale?

One element of their strategy is to train WOL Mentors, internal people who can support and spread Circles. The first certification workshop, which took place over a year ago, was something of an experiment. The training has evolved since then, and now you can participate in the best version yet.

The main idea

The point of WOL Mentor Training is to equip you to build a WOL movement in your organization. That includes giving you insights and material to help you support Circles. What are common challenges? How do you deal with  them? How do you integrate Mentors into your WOL community? The training also includes access to the new WOL Video Library, where you’ll find resources to help you deliver WOL talks and workshops. 

With this “train the trainer” approach, you can develop an internal capability that allows you to scale your WOL movement.

Next Session: March 5-6 in Berlin

This first public two-day workshop is organized and delivered by Kluge Consulting, and will be in German. (Sabine & Alexander Kluge are good friends as well as two of the first WOL Coaches.) Because individuals from multiple companies will join, Mentors will learn from each other too, through exchanging approaches and implementation innovations. You can find information about content, logistics, and costs of the training here.

Of course, you don’t need a Certificate to spread WOL. But as the Working Out Loud community has grown and more companies are spreading Circles, there’s a lot we’ve all learned about how to do it well. Mentor Training is the best way we know to tap into that learning, to accelerate and scale the change you want to deliver to your organization.

What could WOL for Healthcare look like?

Her note started off nicely enough. Then I read her feedback, including a challenge I didn’t know what to do with.

Bettina had heard about WOL Circles at a conference and liked the idea. “I started my first Circle directly. With great success!” She said she is working as a Change Manager in a large non-profit healthcare organization in Germany, and that she wanted to spread Circles. But she made it clear that WOL, in its current form, would never work. 

“The nurses, doctors, and other professionals do not have 60 minutes a week for WOL, there is too much text, the examples have to refer to the health sector…” 

Ouch. She even said the German translation wasn’t acceptable, as the informal pronoun (“du”) simply isn’t used in her organization’s “official papers.”

I knew she was right. I asked if we could speak on the phone. 

The challenges in Healthcare

Healthcare organizations suffer from the same cultural issues that plague many large companies. The hierarchical structures limit information flows in ways that are bad for individuals, the organization, and the patient. Too often, nurses don’t question doctors and medical technicians don’t question the ambulance manager. (Atul Gawande, surgeon, author, and CEO of the recently-formed healthcare venture formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase, captured these challenges in dramatic fashion in The Checklist Manifesto.) 

The same is true across the hierarchy as well. People in a given role are not in the habit of of sharing problems and solutions to improve quality, and in many cases there may be no mechanism to do so. So the same mistakes get repeated, and innovations don’t spread. 

On top of such challenges, all of this takes place in an environment that is extraordinarily demanding. It’s busy, stressful, and unpredictable - and the stakes are extremely high.

One possibility

Of course, not all healthcare organizations have the same cultural issues. Buurtzorg, for example, has over 10,000 professionals in “a nurse-led model of holistic care” that emphasizes “humanity over bureaucracy.” They are portrayed in Reinventing Organizations as a model of self-organization and self-management. But for every Buurtzorg, there are thousands of traditional companies. 

How could WOL help?

I told Bettina how we had already adapted WOL for leaders by making it shorter and simpler, and by integrating it into a reverse mentoring program. Perhaps we could do something similar. 

Together, we decided that Bettina’s colleagues could also meet in pairs (perhaps one with more experience and one new to the organization), and we could limit meeting to no more than 30 minutes. Then we identified eight different exercises over eight weeks - eight contributions they could make that would help them find their voice, improve their craft of patient care, and enable them to re-connect with the sense of purpose that inspired them to join the profession in the first place.

What would you do?

The challenges faced by people in healthcare environment are similar to those in other operational environments, be it manufacturing, retail, transportation.

As different as those jobs may be, the people doing them all share the same human needs for control, competence, and connection. And all of the organizations they work in need to improve quality for their customers and for their own sustainability. The future of work isn’t limited to people working in offices.

Bettina and I will meet in Frankfurt this week to work on details of a pilot. Whatever the outcome, we’ll surely learn something that can help us take a next step and try again.

If you were Bettina, what would you do? What could WOL for Healthcare look like?

Screen Shot 2019-01-29 at 6.29.50 PM.png

“What’s one thing I could do better?"

Imagine you’re about to deliver a presentation. You’re nervous, and uncomfortable talking in front of groups. But you prepare as best you can, muster up your courage, and deliver the talk. 

Afterwards, you breathe a sigh of relief and ask someone the worst possible question you could ask:

“How did it go?”

At Zukunft Personal in Köln, September 2018

Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it good

The other person knows your anxious, and she wants to be supportive and encouraging. So she responds, “It went well!” 

And in that moment, you missed a chance to get constructive feedback and learn, and the other person is robbed of the chance to help someone. 

I realize this exchange is so common that it may seem strange to deviate from it. But ten years ago, I learned a better way from Keith Ferrazzi.

From criticism to contribution

It was 2008, and I was sitting in the Relationship Master’s Academy, a 30-person course from the bestselling author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back. It was that course that made me think differently about how to ask for feedback (and about relationships in general). Keith Ferrazzi taught me how to turn a potentially uncomfortable conversation into one that can benefit both individuals and even deepen the relationship. 

The problem, Keith pointed out, is the way we frame the question. “How did it go?” ( or“How did I do?”) puts the other person on the spot, uncertain of what they should say and worried about offending you. The only safe thing for them is to give you a generic, positive response. 

Instead, Keith suggested, you should explain that you’re trying to improve, and then ask, “What’s one thing I could do better?” That turns an imposition into an invitation. Now you’ve given them explicit permission to give you specific critical feedback. It’s no longer personal but about the learning, and they get to feel that they’re being genuinely helpful.

The cumulative power of “one thing”

I’ve been asking Keith’s question ever since, and it’s led to many interesting conversations. People seem grateful to be asked their opinion in this way, and they almost always come up with something I can do better.

“You should move side to side a bit less”

“That slide was hard to read”

“You should use some different examples”

“You talked really fast”

“You should hold the microphone closer to your mouth”

I listen intently to each bit of feedback. Sometimes I don’t agree or may get conflicting opinions. But I almost always learn about new ways I can improve and about things I need to keep working on. Each exchange is also a chance to practice, both offering vulnerability and receiving constructive criticism.

Try it for yourself. Asking “What’s one thing I could do better?” can help you with any skill you’re trying to develop or improve.

Your one word

At first I dismissed it as a gimmick. After all, what difference could one word make? 

But several of my friends have been doing it for years, and towards the end of 2018 they posted about their one word. My friend Fiona chose “energy” last year. She described how it helped her make better choices, and how she could build on that this coming year.

Whether privately or professionally, every time I had to take a decision I would ask myself the following question: "Will this decision increase my energy level?"

Having increased my energy level in 2018, I am now ready to work on my roots, my foundations, what makes me who I am and what makes me stand up. 

Anne-Marie Imafidon also wrote about her one word. She was featured in chapter 22 of Working Out Loud, and I’ve continued following her many accomplishments and accolades since then. She described the effects of choosing a word in past years and what’s next for her.

So 2019, for me will be the year of ‘Beyond’. I’m venturing beyond my normal boundaries and spheres of influence. I’m looking beyond the realms of what I’m doing now and what I’m currently capable of.

From reading their posts, I saw that your one word could be a kind of guidepost, something that reminds you of which direction you want to travel. At the end of last year I wrote about intentions and what would make the year great, and your one word can be another way to express what you intend to do and be.

My one word is “discipline.” Like Anne-Marie and Fiona, I feel like I’ve been building up to this word for some time, gradually developing habits - work, physical health, mental health - that make it possible for my one word to be more than just a wish.

For me, “discipline” isn’t about limits or stoic deprivation. Just the opposite. It’s about enabling me to make more mindful choices so I do what I truly intend to do. Whenever I have a choice to make, I remember my word and ask myself, “What would a disciplined person do?” Of course I won’t make the right choice each time, but it has already helped. (Some examples include work on important new projects, losing six pounds, and reducing time on my phone by more than 50% .)

What will your one word be? Where do you want to go?

My one word - Discipline.001.jpeg