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.

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/

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.

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.

FAQ: “How do we get management support?”

This question often comes up when I do a Q&A session with an organization. Typically, they’re having early success with their first Working Out Loud Circles, and they want to go further.

“How do we get management support for Working Out Loud?”

I tell people there are three ways, plus one more that we’re piloting. I’ve seen all three be effective, and I’m optimistic about the pilot.

Here’s a key point: start small. Trying to get all managers to support anything is like trying to convince everyone of global warming. There will always be some who will sit there, arms crossed, and reject it no matter what you say or do.

#1. Leverage internal social proof

Instead of appealing to all executives, I rely heavily on social proof. I focus on finding and supporting managers who may be early adopters, help them succeed, and share their stories widely. 

“Social proof is also one of Robert Cialdini's six principles of persuasion, (along with reciprocity, commitment/consistency, authority, liking, and scarcity) which maintains that people are especially likely to perform certain actions if they can relate to the people who performed the same actions before them.”

For example, in a presentation to managers at a Bosch, we used photos and quotes of several leaders who had realized the benefits of Working Out Loud. That allowed managers in the audience to see, more than any facts or conceptual arguments I could present, that “people like me do this.” 

#2. Conduct a formal survey of circle members

Stories can be even more powerful when combined with data, and one way organizations are collecting that data is with structured surveys of circle participants. 

In an organization in Australia, for example, Michelle Ockers surveyed the first wave of circles. The results showed that participants overwhelmingly believed their Working Out Loud Circle improved their skills, made them feel more fulfilled at work, and would help their organization be more collaborative.

Data like this makes it easier and safer for a manager to endorse Working Out Loud or make time for employees to join circles.

#3. Leverage external social proof

When faced with a new idea, the most common question is often “What’s the business case?” and the surveys help answer that. The next most common question is “What do other organizations do?”

To answer this, I talk about the successes at Bosch that culminated in a full-day Working Out Loud conference. I talk about the range of organizations in which circles are spreading, from universities to governmental offices to other large corporations

Over time, there will be more case studies to share, and so more chances to see that “organizations like us” are realizing benefits of Working Out Loud Circles.

Pilot idea: Include them directly

Sometimes, people ask how they can get managers to work out loud themselves. More than getting their approval, how do you get their involvement?

Working Out Loud for Leaders is something I developed with Bosch and Postshift, and that Bosch is piloting now. It’s not circle-based, since many senior managers are unlikely to be vulnerable in a circle nor willing to set aside the required time. So the pilot uses different guides and a different peer support structure. Still, it’s designed to help leaders practice “small steps, over time, with feedback and peer support,” so they experience the benefits themselves.

Each step they take signals to other managers and to the broader organization that it’s safe to do so, enabling Working Out Loud to spread more readily.

Other answers. Other questions.

If you know of other ways to get management support for Working Out Loud, please leave a comment or send me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. Over time, I’’ll update this post so it reflects the best answers of our community. 

I’ve been wanting to publish a proper FAQ section on the website, and I’ll put this post and others I intend to write there. (I’ll prepend “FAQ” to the posts and tag them so people can find them more readily. I’ll also include them in the LinkedIn group.) I have a healthy backlog of questions to answer, and if you have one you’d like to add, I’ll happily address it.