What would you say to 400 knowledge managers?

Today, I’ll fly to Houston to take part in the APQC Knowledge Management (KM) conference. Many of the 400 attendees have been working on KM for years, some for decades. They’re already experts when it comes to the tools and processes they need. 

But something has been missing. The traditional focus on tools and taxonomies has left little room for a harder challenge: people.

Long-time KM experts like Stan Garfield and Nick Milton have written often about the need for focusing on behavior change and a cultural shift. (In one of Stan’s recent articles, the word “culture” appears 8 times.) To increase both the supply and demand of knowledge, you have to create an environment where people are intrinsically motivated to share and search for knowledge as part of their everyday work. But how?

The talk before mine will have many of the answers. It’s by Dan Coyle, author of the excellent book, The Culture Code. Here’s an excerpt from an APQC article about their interview with Dan. 

I have asked KM leaders what their main objective is for implementing KM.  And, overwhelmingly, the #1 response is to “change the culture of the organization.”  

A collaborative culture feels and works better. Dan’s formula for success focuses on

1) making the environment safe to accelerate building relationships and trust,

2) demonstrating how leaders can use vulnerability to forge reciprocity, and

3) creating a roadmap that gets people onboard for the journey ahead.

WOL is a method for implementing some of these ideas. That’s why the APQC also wrote that “Working Out Loud is KM’s most transformative trend.” WOL Circles give people a chance to do what Dan writes about: exchange knowledge, vulnerability, and more all in a psychologically safe space. And the method helps them practice over time till they develop new habits and a new mindset. As the new behaviors spread, the culture changes.

I hope to give a good talk. More importantly, though, I hope to give each of the 400 attendees something they can use, so they can finally fill in the piece that’s been missing, and kick off culture change movements of their own.

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.

Six degrees of co-creation

By now, most people are familiar with six degrees of separation, the idea that you are linked to every individual on the planet by a surprisingly small chain of relationships. In an increasingly connected world, it means that information and behaviors can spread quickly via social networks.

You would think this would be especially powerful at work, where a smaller population also shares some sense of identity and values. But the opposite seems to be true. Inside companies, there is typically friction and resistance that limits the number of connections and information flow.

Why? And what can we do about it?

Co-creation

Companies have long recognized this problem, and have exhorted employees to collaborate more and break down silos. But the organization chart naturally creates Us and Them in the company, and all the territorial defensiveness that goes with it. Like Hercule’s Hydra, the oft-lamented silos form and re-form no matter how many attempts are made to reorganize and get rid of them.

“Co-creation" is a fairly recent phenomenon. It purposefully “brings different parties together (for instance, a company and a group of customers), in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome.” As part of the quality movement, for example, manufacturers worked closely with suppliers to identify and fix issues.

Originally, the concept of co-creation was limited to formal arrangements between companies and customers, and later on became common between different companies, divisions, and teams. But it can go far beyond that.

Six degrees of co-creation

Today, co-creation is even easier. Instead of the starting point being an agreement between two organizations, co-creation can begin with contributions from anyone, anywhere, and rely on social networks to deliver relevant information to the people who need it or might find it useful.  

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson described this as the basis for most innovations:

“Innovative environments expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts…If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from just giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

Co-creation, writ large, thus requires an increase in both the supply and demand of knowledge. More people need to make their work visible - what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re learning - and more people need to be curious enough to search for, use, and build on the work of others. It’s the opposite of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Instead, everyone contributes, and innovations emerge from networks that form across traditional boundaries.

Good for your organization. Good for you.

Perhaps it’s easy to see why an organization would want such an environment. It would lead to greater innovation as Johnson describes, to reducing the duplication of effort and errors, and to greater agility and resilience in the face of change. That’s why so many companies are investing in culture change programs, in new social intranets, in events to inspire and encourage employees to work and think differently. Although their progress is slow, they are serious in their attempts to improve how people work together. 

But what’s in it for you as an individual? Why on earth would you share your hard-earned knowledge without knowing what you might get in return?

The answer, in short, is that it makes your world bigger. Each contribution you make is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with possibilities you would never know about otherwise. You are only a few degrees away from other people, knowledge, and resources that can help you realize more of your personal potential. But you’ll only realize that potential if you work in a more open, connected way.

Co-creation needn’t be a formal program, or something that requires permission from the boss. It’s a choice, a way of working you can start practicing today. What are you waiting for?

***

Note: This post is adapted from an article I wrote for a company’s internal employee magazine earlier this year.

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A recipe for changing your corporate culture

This isn’t the only recipe, of course, nor is it a guarantee. Perhaps a more accurate description would be “a list of ingredients you need to have a chance of making a difference.”

To begin, it’s easier to start with three things that don’t work.

Rebels. As much as I admire people who break the rules for good reasons, their actions tend to be futile when it come to changing a company. The rocks they throw at the corporate machine tend not to make much of a dent, and eventually the rebels becomes disheartened and move on.

Grassroots movements. I want to believe that change at work can be democratic. Yet grassroots movements inevitably hit a kind of “grass ceiling.” Despite their good intentions and good will, there are limits to what they can do without changing structures and processes.

Change from the top. If it’s difficult to order your children to change behavior, it’s impossible to order thousands of adults. Yes, managers do have significant influence, and they certainly have authority to allocate resources and make certain decisions. But they cannot decide on a culture, a mindset, or the behaviors that employees will adopt.

Sustainable change isn’t just driven from the top or by rebels or grassroots efforts. It requires a bit of all three. An example that makes me optimistic about this recipe is something that’s happening at Bosch and Daimler..

Back in 2015, it was a “rebel” at Bosch who introduced Working Out Loud there. Her skill, passion, and perseverance enabled her to build a grassroots movement of several hundred people. She then inspired a rebel at Daimler to do something similar, and they continued to collaborate informally.

As the movements expanded, there were now many people - not just rebels - making their work visible and actively growing their influence. They self-organized, and purposefully and opportunistically reached out to different divisions to find places where they could integrate WOL into existing programs. Over time, WOL found its way into the Corporate Academy, the on-boarding program, mentor programs, and more.

Their latest milestone was this past October 31st, when Bosch and Daimler teamed up to jointly sponsor WOLCON18 for 400 of their employees. In attendance were two board members, the head of industrial relations (including HR) at Bosch, and the Chairman of the General Works Council at Daimler. Though they’re typically on opposite sides of the negotiating table, a photo below shows them together supporting the grassroots movements to become something much bigger (and even wearing WOL hoodies with their company’s logos on them). Daimler issued a press release about it.

"Working Out Loud proves that the digital transformation does not need to instill fear and worry. It comes down to how it is designed. If you make your work visible, you also learn what it is worth. And if you network, you find additional possibilities of belonging and recognition. 

If 100 percent of all users of a new method have more fun doing their job, the method is right and makes work more humane. And as the works council, we can only support this.”

The movements now include thousands of people. What was formerly rebellious has been embraced and institutionalized. What would have been unthinkable less than a year ago is now normal, and new possibilities keep emerging.

Whatever change you’re hoping to bring about, the point is that the recipe for change really can start with you - and also that it must go beyond you. You have to connect the people who believe what you believe so you can amplify the benefits and make them visible. That’s what makes it possible to gain the management support you’ll need to scale your efforts, and to make the difference you want to make.

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BOARD MEMBERS FROM BOSCH & DAIMLER (HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS & CHAIRMAN OF THE GENERAL WORKS COUNCIL)

BOARD MEMBERS FROM BOSCH & DAIMLER (HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS & CHAIRMAN OF THE GENERAL WORKS COUNCIL)

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If there is an Us and Them in your organization

Like it or not, there is certainly an Us and Them in your organization. Indeed, there are many, as employees identify with different divisions, locations, and teams. Human beings desperately seek group affiliations and have evolved to quickly identify who’s in our group and who isn’t. Even infants do it.

The reason we developed this deeply-ingrained tendency most likely started with genetics. The forces of group-level natural selection led to prosocial behaviors within a group and competition between groups. That helped related members pass on their genes. But now it goes way beyond that. 

The Trolley Experiments

A classic thought experiment used in ethics can tell us a lot about our innate tribalism and how the brain works. It’s called “The Trolley Problem.” 

“You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a level that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two choices:
1. Do nothing and also the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.”

In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Prof. Richard Sapolsky describes experiments involving variations of this problem. What if one of the people were related to you? Or were of the same ethnicity? Or wore the jersey of your favorite team? 

Would that affect your choice? Of course it would. “According to one astonishing survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than a foreign tourist if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more ‘kinship’ with the dog.”

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The part of you that decides

In another version of this experiment, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a person onto the tracks to save the other five. Experimenters gave subjects both versions while neuro-imaging their brains. They found that those pushing a person activated “emotion-related regions that respond to aversive stimuli.” Those pulling a lever did not activate those regions. For them, it was “as purely cerebral a decision as choosing which wrench to use to fix a widget.”

Remove the human element from mistreating someone, and it literally changes how you think about it. 

What to do?

Sapolsky offered no easy answers. Human behavior is complicated, the research is often contradictory, and the best you can do is point to rough probabilities.

“From massive, breathtaking barbarity to countless pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet our generic goal is not to cure us of Us/Them dichotomizing. It can’t be done…"

Instead, in the final pages he had advice for how to at least mitigate our ingrained tribal tendencies and tap into more prosocial behaviors. “Focus on the larger shared, goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.” Seeing the other person as someone you can relate to engages other parts of your brain, allowing you to feel empathy and compassion.

Perhaps you have two divisions that don’t get along, or the merger of two organizations still hasn’t resulted in one culture, or there’s friction between headquarters and the branch locations. Consider purposefully forming WOL Circles with people from the different groups. Over the twelve weeks, they’ll relate to each other as individuals who have much in common, and those human connections can serve as bridges between the groups. 

When you go beyond the labels and categories, go beyond “Them,” it can change everything.

When the CEO isn’t enough

I was sitting in the audience as the divisional CEO delivered his talk to over 500 people. He was encouraging them to try new ways of working, to experiment more, connect across silos, and continuously learn. Not only would it be better for them as individuals, he told them, but the company needed this kind of culture and attitude. The enthusiasm was palpable.

Then he opened the floor to questions from the audience, and a hand went up.

“But what do I tell my manager?”

Fear and control

The employee's concern was understandable. Despite exhortations from top management, the new values posted on the walls, the cultural change program, it still didn’t feel safe to do things differently. Too many other people got into trouble doing that, so why take the risk?

Without a sense of psychological safety - "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" - most people will wait until a critical mass has changed behavior before making a change themselves.

How many people have to say “yes”?

After the question there was an awkward pause. The CEO replied that it was better in this case not to ask permission. "You should just do it,” he said, explaining that the personal benefits were worth the risk. 

The head of the Works Council was also there, and he pointed out that even in the most stringent environments, employees had times when they could choose for themselves what to do. “If your boss doesn’t like what you’re trying, do it on your lunch hour, or outside of work.” 

The audience didn’t seem satisfied. They wanted to do things differently, but they felt stuck. As happy as they were with visible support from top management, they knew the CEO wouldn’t be there if their boss doled out consequences.

The permission you’ve been waiting for

One way out of this conundrum is for you to take a series of small steps rather than a big leap. There’s plenty of research to show that even small changes to tasks, relationships, and perceptions can make you happier and more effective. (It’s call “job crafting” and you can read more about it here.)

You may have to experience it for yourself before you believe it, like my friend Stefan who, after 12 weeks in a WOL Circle, said this:

"I now realize there are things - tasks and interests - that bring me joy and satisfaction besides my original job but are still in a business context. I guess my next goal will be concerned with job crafting... ;-) " 

Every day you have some control over who you interact with and what you do. Every day you have complete control over how you interact with others and how you approach the work you need to do. 

You can choose to experiment in small ways at work, to learn and explore more, to relate to others with generosity and kindness, to actively look for purpose and meaning in what you do. You can be a leader in one of the most important ways possible - by example.

For that, the only person you’ll need permission from is you. 

 

The skill that every startup needs (but most don’t have)

Even if you don’t think of yourself as an entrepreneur, you may well be a startup or work with others who qualify for the label. By “startup,” I mean any individual or group that wants to turn an idea into something more than that.

Maybe you work in a big company and want to contribute or develop in some new way. Maybe you’re participating in an innovation program of some kind. Or maybe you're looking to do something on your own.

A skill you’ll need is the ability to build a purposeful network. Here are two reasons why that skill's important, and one way you can get better at it.

Bringing an idea to life

It’s clear that most innovations aren’t the result of lone inventors in garages. They’re the result of connections - between people and ideas - that result in new combinations. Steven Johnson captured this in Where Good Ideas Come From, which surveyed innovations over hundreds of years:

“If you look at history, innovation comes from creating environments where ideas can connect. Innovative environments… expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts.”

For those of you working in large companies, please note that he didn’t write “Innovation comes from the best Powerpoint slides pitched to judges in the innovation program.” You don’t hide your idea until the day of some competition. Instead, as Eric Ries described so well in Lean Startup, you share your ideas and related work early on; you actively solicit feedback that helps you refine and improve upon it; and then you iterate. Along the way, you build relationships with people that can help you in some way, whether it’s with technology, financing, usability, or anything else you might need.

That’s how you bring your idea to life. It’s only after you have a viable prototype that you may want to approach people for funding, permission, or other resources - if you need it.

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

The HP Garage, also known as "The Birthplace of Silicon Valley," spawned a myth about innovation that's no longer relevant (if it ever was).

Building a tribe around an idea

Now imagine your idea has been selected or you’ve somehow brought it to the successful prototype stage. At this point you have a different challenge: getting attention. After all, if not enough people know or care about your work, you won’t be able to reach the audience you want to reach, or make the difference you want to make. 

Today, most successful startups don’t rely on traditional marketing to get attention because it’s too expensive and inefficient. Instead, they try to build communities around their idea.

Using the metaphor from Derek Sivers’ popular TED talk, “How to build a movement” (a great way to spend 3 minutes), modern startups actively look to find “their second and third dancers” - early adopters who embrace the idea - by making their offering visible and accessible. Then they equip, empower, and connect those who care about their work to spread the word for them, all the while getting access to valuable feedback, knowledge, and new opportunities. 

An impassioned tribe, connected to an idea and to each other, has much more power than any lone inventor. 

How to teach yourself & others

Building a purposeful network isn’t just an extra task or a nice thing to have. It’s fundamental to the innovation process. And, importantly, it's a skill anyone can develop.

One way to do it, to learn by actually building relationships that matter, is through a Working Out Loud Circle. If your company is trying to increase innovation, you can integrate WOL Circles into your formal programs or corporate learning academy. If you’re on your own, you can form a Circle yourself to deepen relationships with people related to your idea. (You can find Circle members in the WOL groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.) 

Anyone can have an idea. It takes a network to bring your idea to life, and bring it to the world.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who will lead our self-managing team?”

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

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

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

“The Grass Ceiling” 

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

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

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

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

A different kind of "secure attachment"

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

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

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

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

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

Some remarkable results

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

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

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

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

These people are experiencing the future of work. Now. 

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

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

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

Part of the WOL CO-creation team at BMW

A chasm between here and there

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

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

Taking a step instead of a leap

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

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

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

Two companies. Two events. Two milestones.

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

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

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

Organizational change that feels good

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

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

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

You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself?