The 2nd edition of “Working Out Loud”

A lot has happened since Working Out Loud was published in June of 2015. Working Out Loud Circles are now in a wide range of organizations and over twenty countries. (Hello, Sri Lanka!) There was a TEDx talk that helped raise awareness. And to spread the practice further, I started ikigai LLC so I could work on it full-time. 

Perhaps most importantly, a growing community and I have learned a lot about what works and doesn't work. So I’ve begun to update the book with all we’ve learned. 

Since you’re reading this, chances are that you have your own opinions and experiences related to Working Out Loud. Here’s a question for you.

What would make the book better?

There are certain things I thought I would keep the same. For example, many people seemed to like the short exercises and chapter recaps in the first edition. I also have a few specific things I want to add.

  • A new chapter on how organizations are using Working Out Loud Circles to create a more open, collaborative culture.
  • More stories showing an even broader range of people who work out loud, and how and why they do it.
  • Updated information on how Circles work and how they spread. (It was only after the book came out that I published the first complete set of Circle guides.)
  • Ways the community and I are adapting the practice, including Working Out Loud for Teams and for Communities.

I don’t want the book to be longer, so I’ll eliminate some things too. My intention is to complete the 2nd edition over the next few months and publish it later in 2016.

If you have an idea for making the book better, or have a story you want to share, I would love to hear about it. Just post a comment below or send me email

Thank you for any suggestions. I'm looking forward to incorporating your ideas into the next edition.

My favorite book launch party lasted three years

Cake by "Baking Outside The Box" There’s a familiar pattern to most book launches. The book signings, the radio shows, the racing for people’s attention in the first 30 days after publication, before the world moves on to one of the other 2 million books published every year.

It’s all good. It’s just not me.

So when I read about a different kind of book launch, I thought “Maybe I could do this instead.”

Humble beginnings

In the preface to Eckhart Tolle’s first book, The Power of Now, he tells the story of how it launched. The book was published by Namaste Publishing, a start-up imprint in Vancouver, and they printed 3,000 copies. There was no marketing budget or much attention at all, so Tolle hand-delivered books to local Vancouver bookstores. He said he found this “enormously satisfying, knowing that every book I handed over had the potential of changing someone’s life.”

His other distribution channels included friends placing copies in spiritual bookstores in other cities along the west coast of the US and Canada. Some copies even made it to a shop London. During the first year, “the book found its readers almost exclusively through word of mouth.”

Word spreads

The original blurbs in the front of the book are evidence of these humble beginnings. Instead of celebrities or noted spiritualists, the quotes are from the bookstore managers who first got the book.

The Power of Now was introduced to me by a customer. I read only one page and agreed that it rang true. It is a jewel of clarity and insight. The book has become a word-of-mouth bestseller here at East West.” - Norman Snitkin, comanager, East West Bookshop, Seattle


“I have no hesitation in recommending Eckhart Tolle’s wonderful book. Everyone who has picked up a copy has ended up taking it home. The Power of Now sells on its own merit and by word of mouth.” - Stephen Gawtry, Manager, Watkins Books Ltd., London

Over the first two years, the book got favorable reviews in some small magazines and was picked up by a larger publisher. By that time, one reviewer called it “an underground best-seller.”

A year later, actress Meg Ryan mentioned the book to Oprah in an interview. That led to an article in one of the early editions of Oprah magazine, then more mentions and ultimately interviews. After three years, the book was translated in multiple languages and was on its way to becoming a NY Times bestseller. After eight years, Tolle wrote another book and the two books have sold a combined total of over eight million copies in North America alone. A series of webinars with Oprah in 2008 attracted more than 35 million viewers.

My talk with Oprah

While I enjoyed Tolle’s books and the rags-to-riches nature of the story, what I liked most was how he originally published his book to help other people. He had no hope of making much money with it, yet he did it anyway. And word spread.

That’s my approach with Working Out Loud. It’s meant as a gift. If people find it useful, they’ll tell a friend or pick it for their book club. Some will form a working out loud circle and put the ideas into practice. Maybe a few thousand people might buy a copy in the first year. Maybe word will spread. Maybe not.

Once in a while though, I think of what happened to The Power of Now and imagine if something similar happened to Working Out Loud. What if more people find my gift useful? It might take years but what if millions of people wind up building a better career and life? And since the royalties go to education causes around the world, what kinds of positive impact could we make with that money?

My talk with Oprah wouldn’t be about me at all. When I allow myself to daydream about it, I imagine our conversation would be like this interview with Pharrell Williams. In the middle of it, Oprah shows a video of how other people leveraged Pharrell's work to make themselves and others happier.

As they both cry, she says, “It’s being used for something that’s greater than yourself.”


Help wanted: making this book cover better

Working Out LoudI shared the latest draft version of the book cover with friends on Facebook and they had no problem telling me what they thought about it. “Don’t like the red.”

“I like the connections between the Os.”

“Feels gimmicky.”

“Very clean.”

My 14 year old son, after reviewing a cover variation that included photos of people, sent me a particularly blunt text message:

“Okay, wow. The pics are scary.”

People felt differently about the color, font, even whether to include my middle initial. Despite the sometimes conflicting opinions though, the feedback was helpful in further shaping the design as well as my thinking. So now I'm sharing the complete book jacket with all of you. After all, when it comes to working out loud, who better to tell me what works and doesn’t work than the readers of this blog?

The best comment you could make

The book will be available as both a paperback and ebook via Amazon and perhaps some other online channels. Since I’m self-publishing, the book won’t appear in stores unless I bring copies there, so people will only see the cover online. I’m still investigating distribution possibilities and the best way to get a good hardcover version printed.

For more information about the book, click here. If you’d like to read the latest draft and provide feedback, just ask for a copy and I will gladly send you one.

If you want to keep it simple, you could list just two things in a comment below:

  1. The thing you liked most.
  2. The thing you’d want me to change.

Please feel free to post more ideas. Ask yourself: Would I feel good handing this book to a friend? I appreciate any and all suggestions on the color, font, text, subtitle, my photo. Anything. The best comment you could make is anything you think will make the book better.

I appreciate you taking the time to post your suggestions. Thank you.

Two possible front covers

Working Out Loud

Book cover (white)

Inside front and back flaps

Book - inside flaps

Back cover text


Book - rear cover


How to not suck at receiving feedback

Self-worth in a dishwasherI usually suck at receiving feedback. Even a constructive suggestion from my wife about loading the dishwasher feels like a personal attack, as if my very self-worth is tied to whether the dishes should face in or out. Yet in writing Working Out Loud, dozens of people are giving me feedback and I like it. Somehow I’ve learned to be grateful for the criticisms of my wife, my friends, and people I’ve only met via this blog. As a result, the book is already much, much better.

Three things helped me, and whether your goal is cleaner dishes or a better life, I hope they can help you too.

Frame the goal as a learning goal

Several years ago, Keith Ferrazzi first introduced me to the idea of framing things as learning goals. If I wanted to be a better public speaker, for example, he taught me not to ask “How was I?”after a talk but “What’s one thing I could do better?” That empowered the other person to give me constructive help instead of just simple encouragement.

Seth Godin wrote that “Applause is great. We all need more of it. But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback.” Besides, I’d much rather learn about weaknesses in the book now than read about them in Amazon reviews after I’ve published it.

Here’s some feedback that made me wince at first but made the book better. Sometimes, the reviewer is describing a section or my editorial style:

“you started to lose me”

“It felt that there were a lot of commas!”

“the exercise becomes a bit cheesy to me”

“intro wordy and a bit ‘la di da’”

Then there were more general comments:

“The one aspect I didn't really enjoy”

“While I was reading it, I didn’t get much sense of the overall reason for the content”

“Well, you asked me to be blunt...”

But the most negative comments were on the graphics I used. In the 82 pages draft, there were only two graphics and they were both universally hated.

“Surely, it’s just a placeholder”

“The pentagon of 5 elements...needs improvement because it is not interesting-looking or memorable”

Appreciate it as a gift

All of these particular comments were useful. The visuals did stink. I did use too many commas. The confusing parts were confusing.

But Ferrazzi also taught me that I didn’t have to take on every bit of feedback. After all, of the 25 pages of comments I received, there were sometimes conflicting suggestions or points I simply didn’t agree with.

Feedback is a gift. You accept it graciously and if it isn’t right for you after due consideration, you put it aside. Viewing it this way also helped me to take the criticism and myself less seriously. In The Art of Possibility, the conductor Ben Zander reinforced this when he described reacting to mistakes not with irritation but with “How fascinating!”

Choosing amateurish graphics doesn’t make me a bad author or even a bad selector of graphics. It just highlights an opportunity to improve in yet another area. “How fascinating!”

Accentuate the positive

It seems we’re all wired to look out for threats and overlook the good things. In a page full of positive comments, I’d immediately focus on the one criticism.

Being mindful of that tendency, I would purposefully read the positive feedback again and again. Besides bolstering my confidence, it helped me put the negative comments in perspective.

“I love this book.”

“I love the way you write.”

“LOVE LOVE LOVE a home run”

“The stories of people thru out, embedded in the chapters, are great.”

“Like your blogs, this draft is captivating and I didn't want to put it aside.”

“Eff YEAH!  So, so, SO exciting seeing it all come together REALLY REALLY REALLY awesome”

“I also selfishly wonder if there is a version for 11 - 13 years old which I can use with my daughter. I am serious!”

The results

A friend of mine is an author and when he heard how much feedback I was getting he mused to himself “What would you do with all of that?”

I thought “What would I have done without all of it?!” My early drafts were pathetic, like high school book reports full of quotes to show the teacher how much research I’ve done. Without the generosity of the reviewers, I may never have gotten beyond that stage.

In addition to making the book better, asking for and getting feedback has done something else, something surprising and even more important. It’s transformed the solitary experience of writing into a global communion, full of good feelings and intellectual exchanges. The book doesn’t feel like mine alone any more but like the collaboration of a small tribe. Now I'm about to send out another draft to another round of reviewers and I'm asking for other help: marketing, graphics, self-publishing, copyediting. I’m not good at any of these things but with the help and generosity of others, I can get better.

When it comes to getting feedback about something you care about, Seth Godin summed it up nicely just two days ago:

“Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Not imaginary, but practical. Not based on fear, but on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you better.

Seek it out and embrace the true friends that care enough to risk sharing it.”

“How’s the book coming along?

Book coverA difficult conversation with someone who cares about you can help you confront an uncomfortable truth. I’ve been writing a book for the past 18 months. My friends will ask “How’s the book coming along?” I’ll respond with some vague reply and they'll offer encouragement.

Five weeks ago, over morning coffee, my wife asked me the same question. And the ensuing conversation is making it possible for me reach a goal I care very much about.

The adjustments I learned I had to make might help you, too.

The conversation

My wife sees me brooding in front of my laptop for countless hours, so when I told her that the book is going well, she had a few more questions.

“When will it be done?” I don’t know. I really don’t have enough time.

How much more time do you need? I don’t know.

How much time have you spent on it so far? I don’t know.

How much did you work on it last week? Or yesterday even? I don’t know.

A long awkward silence ensued. Inside my head were two other questions. Did Hemingway’s wife ask him these questions? And, more importantly: Am I just kidding myself?

Instead of trying to defend my lack of a meaningful publishing plan, I made 3 adjustments. The first one I made while the coffee was still hot.

Spending time

Hanako's chartI was aware of the irony that, in coaching others, I often help them to better manage their time so they get things done. It was clear to my wife (and now to me) that I wasn’t applying my own advice. 

A few weeks earlier, my wife and daughter came up with a simple chart posted on the refrigerator to motivate us to achieve goals we cared about: more exercise for the parents and more time practicing piano for my daughter. It worked.

IMG_4364So, after the conversation with my wife, I posted another simple chart to track hours spent on the book each day as well as when I shipped something to readers for feedback. 

Just like my Nike Fuel Band encourages me to move more, the simple and public display of my efforts on the book helped me to write more and ship more.


Later that same day, I was reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. Two chapters in particular helped me with my problem. “The Low-Information Diet” made me realize that, while I was reading a lot and meeting many interesting people, much of it was only marginally related to the book. If I wanted to actually publish a book, I’d have to be much more focused.

The chapter on “Interrupting Interruption” helped me see that, despite knowing the importance of focus, I was frittering away time and my capacity to pay attention by responding to far too many interruptions. Worse, I’d interrupt myself by impulsively checking my phone. James Altucher referred to it as “The Loop.” You’d check email, then Twitter, then Facebook, then the blog. Before you knew it, I'd wasted spent 10-20 minutes. And I'd do that a few times a day.

I recognized  I somehow had time for books, for “The Loop,” for coffee with people, but not enough time for my most important goal: writing the book.

So I became more ruthless in practicing what I preach. Now I turn off WiFi when I’m writing. I process email and check social media in batches rather than impulsively throughout the day. And I carefully budget the time I spend on things not related to my goal. Having better control of my time and attention made a tremendous difference.

The last adjustment had to do with my motivation. Why was my goal important anyway?

Clarity of purpose

There are so many books. Why bother writing another one? I knew it wasn’t to make money. (Books don’t generate much and I always thought to donate proceeds to and public education anyway.)

An even worse reason - my original purpose - was to enhance my personal brand. But the idea of marketing my book just so I could sell myself and more copies was grossly unappealing. It felt inauthentic and was perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress.

It was only when I started coaching people that the purpose became clear: I’m writing the book to help people. To help them discover possibilities for making work and life more meaningful and fulfilling.

I see such positive change in the people I coach that I want to coach everyone I meet. People who’ve grown to hate working in dehumanizing corporations. People trying to start their own companies. People of all ages who are struggling to find jobs and, ideally, work that’s more than just a job.

The book, if I get it right, will help people help themselves and help each other. Once I was clear that the book wasn’t about me but about helping others, it was clear I had to work on it.

Thank you

Since that conversation with my wife, I’ve written and shipped more in 5 weeks than in the preceding 75 weeks. Earlier this month, I shipped the first few chapters of Working Out Loud to volunteer reviewers and their feedback has already made the book better. Two days ago, I sent the first half of the book to 15 more reviewers. I’ll keep doing that until I self-publish the book in September. (If you’d like to review a draft, or have any ideas or suggestions for the book, please leave a comment or contact me.)

I’ll use this blog to share more about the book in the coming months. And I hope that sharing the process itself will help you as you work on your own goals that are important to you.

Thank you for your time and your continued encouragement. It all means a lot to me.

The 5 elements of Working Out Loud

Update: Working Out Loud is now available on Amazon sites around the world.

Recently, I was talking with my wife about Working Out Loud and the book that I’m publishing later this year. After a few minutes, she bluntly asked me:

“So, is it just blogging?”

Now, that’s one of those questions that could either lead to an argument or could lead to deeper reflection and new insights. I chose the deeper reflection and new insights.

My wife’s question made made me think that, despite writing about Working Out Loud for a few years, maybe I haven’t been clear enough about what it really is.

So here’s a broader definition that I hope you’ll find useful.

The original definition

When Bryce Williams first coined the term more than 3 years ago, he described it with a simple formula:

Working Out Loud = Observable Work + Narrating Your Work

Understandably, he focuses on publishing. And, looking back, I’ve also placed most of the emphasis on publishing. (My most popular post on working out loud uses “Your personal content strategy” as a subtitle.)

So I can understand my wife’s question. Simply using social platforms might be considered working out loud but it could completely miss the point. Working out loud is meant to be purposeful - to help you get things done and make work better. To be effective, you have to do more than just blog or tweet about what you’re working on.

A broader definition

So now, when someone asks me “What's Working Out Loud”?, here’s what I say:

“Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that - when you work in a more open, connected way - you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”

It’s not as pithy as I’d like but it’s usually good enough to get people's attention so I can follow up with examples or stories of people who do it well. There are 5 elements in this description I’d like to highlight.

Making your work visible:As Bryce described, this is indeed the fundamental starting point for working out loud.

Making work better: One of the main reasons for openly narrating your work is to find ways to improve it. You’re publishing so other people will see it, including some who can provide useful feedback, connections, or other things that will make your work better.

Leading with generosity: By framing your posts as contributions - as opposed to, say, efforts at self-promotion or personal branding - you’re more likely to engage other people. You're not just looking for help but offering to help others, too. As Keith Ferrazzi said, “The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.”

Building a social network: As you work out loud over time, you’ll be interacting with a broader range of people. The further you develop relationships with people in your network, the more likely it will be that you’ll collaborate with them and that they’ll be willing help you in other ways.

Making it all purposeful: Finally, since there’s an infinite amount of  contributing and connecting you can do, you need to make it purposeful in order to be effective. (Goals might be as simple as “I want more recognition in my firm.” or “I’d like to explore opportunities in another industry or location.”) You can still have plenty of room for serendipity, but having a goal in mind focuses your learning, your publishing, and your connections.

What do you think?

Though the most important part of working out loud is actually doing it rather than wrangling over a definition, a part of changing how people work is making them aware there are better ways to begin with. And that includes a useful, easy-to-understand description of working out loud.

Many of you are experts on working out loud and have been doing it for years. How do you describe working out loud to people for the first time? What changes could we make to the description so we can help more people understand it and start practicing it?

Working Out Loud in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin I’m sitting on a plane heading back to NY, reading notes from 70+ people about working out loud.

I met those people at the Social Business Collaboration Summit in Berlin. There, with attendees from companies as diverse as IKEA, KPMG, and Asian Paints, I got the chance to ask:

“Did they see the benefits of working out loud?”

“Were they having difficulties helping people at their firms change how they work?”

Here’s what they said.

The easy part: benefits

Contributions during the World Cafe

Groups of 15 or so convened for 30 minutes each in a World Cafe format. After a brief description of working out loud - “making your work visible and narrating your work in progress” - each group quickly listed a series of benefits:

  • makes it easier to spot duplication and identify collaboration opportunities
  • improves quality and timeliness by getting feedback in the early stages of work
  • makes it easier to discover and develop knowledge and expertise
  • helps teams, particularly global teams, feel closer
  • helps break silos and connect the dots across teams
  • fosters innovation by allowing more people to use knowledge in different ways
  • gives people control of their reputation and taps into intrinsic motivation

One woman, with a lovely accent and a sense of the poetic, added “it helps your work develop new routes.”

A simple example from IKEA

"Finding competence"

A woman in the communications division at IKEA told a story of how working out loud helped her team “find competence in unexpected places.” In her area, people around the world have similar jobs managing their local communications sites. Every month, they’d get on a conference call to share information but it wasn’t very effective. The timezones made the call inconvenient for some. And not everyone was comfortable speaking in English. So the calls were dominated by those most confident and awake.

Then the team decided to augment their calls by using their new social platform. And, all of a sudden, “someone who never said anything on the phone was making all these contributions online.” He shifted from being invisible to “becoming influential and a leader in the group.”

“Great,” I said to the others, “now how many stories do you have like this at your firms?”

An uncomfortable truth

As you might expect, most people at a social business conference are used to working out loud themselves. But the number of people doing so at there firms remains woefully low. Even getting people to simply login to a collaboration platform remains a challenge.

This seemed to be true across industries and cultures. Why? All we had were theories and anecdotes:

“Maybe people are too busy.”

“Maybe they’re uncomfortable talking about their work in public.” 

“Maybe their managers suppress them.” 

“Maybe they’re simply surrounded by people working a certain way and it’s too difficult to work differently.”

“Maybe some people would rather be invisible at work.”

So while more and more companies have social collaboration projects, the pace of change is very, very slow.

Getting started

Evolving the way we work

In answering the question “What can we do?” the groups were both positive and practical. Most agreed that it’s about developing new habits. So that meant using the same techniques that work for changing other habits.

  1. Make it simple. Just changing someone’s home page can make the platform seem much more accessible. And curated suggestions of people, groups, and content relevant to a person’s division and location make the value more apparent.
  2. Start small. Create situations - such as town halls and other events - where people can find material or ask a question and feel the benefits themselves.
  3. Make it safe. Give every team a private online space to make posting seem less risky.
  4. Leverage social influence. Spend more effort on getting influential people, especially senior management, to model the behavior.
  5. Make it relevant. Provide more content and more integration with daily processes so it’s part of the daily work and not yet another thing to do.

Are we there yet?

After a few years of attending conferences like this one in Berlin, we’ve moved from just talking about the possibilities to having firms of all kinds actively working to change things. We’ve enabled a first wave of experimentation and have our first meaningful sets of stories across a wide range of companies. But how long will it take until a critical mass of people in large firms of working differently?

Later in the week, at a meet-up of early adopters in Frankfurt, I said I thought it would take 3-5 years. When I asked people in the room what they thought, the majority said “a generation.”

Time to get back to work.

The doctor at the fast food convention

Really? Can you imagine being a doctor at a fast food convention, trying to change the way people eat? Even if the attendees know the food is bad for them, they’ll be surrounded by it and by other people who eagerly eat it, so they'll eat it too.

To try to help them, you’ll race around frantically, telling them about the benefits of eating right and exercising. Some will nod their heads. “Yes, we really should.” Then they’ll go back to doing what they usually do.

That’s what it can feel like when you talk about making work better in large companies.

Most people know there are better ways of working. They know their daily practices aren’t good for them. They know they’re not engaged. But for most of them it just feels too difficult to change.

So what do you do? Give up on all those unfulfilled people?

The Work Revolution Summit

Yesterday, I was fortunate to be admitted to the Work Revolution Summit where I could  “join leading entrepreneurs, startup investors, futurists, organizational designers, and technology experts to fundamentally re-design the way we work.”


One of the organizers was Jessica Lawrence, who is both former CEO of the Girl Scouts and organizer of the NY Tech Meetup for entrepreneurs. One of the objectives of the summit was to help start-ups maintain “a ‘human’ company culture that helps both the employees and the company reach their full potential as the organization grows and scales.” And Jessica gave a fascinating talk about trying to change the culture while she was CEO.

There were several other great speakers, including Seth Godin. And I got to ask him a question about what to do when your are, in essence, a doctor at the fast food convention.

A question for Seth Godin

Seth GodinSeth Godin’s daily blog has done more to change how I approach work than anything else. And each time I hear him speak, I’m inspired to do more. This time, I had the chance the to ask him “What do you do when you’re preaching change and and it seems like only a small minority is interested in actually changing?”

He told me something that I know is right but I’ve had trouble putting into practice. Don’t preach to everybody. Don’t try to reach everybody. Many people are simply trying to hold onto their job and it's too scary/hard/uncomfortable for them to do something different. Instead, find the people who are ready and eager for change. Connect them to build a tribe who wants to change. And equip and empower that tribe to extend the movement (giving them credit and control when they do).

A shift in tactics

The first NYC Marathon in 1970

I was 6 years old when the first NYC Marathon took place in 1970. Only 127 people ran that race. Only 55 finished. And about 100 people watched. No one I knew heard of it. No one I knew ran at all. At the time, running a marathon seemed ridiculous.

41 years later, almost 47,000 people finished and almost 2 million people lined up along the route. It’s become the largest marathon anywhere in the world. And even I completed one.

Running marathons didn’t spread because Fred Lebow, the original organizer, went around telling everyone about the benefits of running. Instead, all 6 sources of influence came into play. Over time, there was more help to get you started and more motivation at the personal, social, and structural levels. More running books, more equipment, more races, more clubs, more visible rewards.  Over the course of a generation, more and more people just did it.

Growth of a tribe

So of course changing how people work isn’t simply about telling people. We’ll have to keep making it easier to work out loud. Keep writing about it and teaching it. Keep connecting advocates and equipping them to extend their own networks.

Just now, I joined the work revolution where I pledged "I will do whatever I can within my sphere of influence to promote workplaces that are profoundly human and deeply meaningful."

It may take a generation, but we need to keep running.

“The task now is to discover how far they can take us.”

Where are you heading? We were sitting across the table at a cafe, talking about our current projects, when she asked me one of those easy-to-ask, hard-to-answer questions:

“What’s your mission?”

I talked about making work more effective and fulfilling at my firm and yet, even as I was saying the words, I realized they weren’t enough. They might describe my current work, but is that it? Is that all there is?

This I Believe

Among people who are trying to change their companies, there’s usually a feeling that runs deeper. They’re not just trying to improve a bank or a pharmaceutical company, they’re trying to improve people’s lives. Seeking to restore fairness, diversity, and equality. Hoping to make the world a better place.

If that sounds idealistic, it’s because it is. It’s why collaboration conferences can feel more like religious revivals (or what I imagine those to be like) than groups talking about corporate initiatives, change management, and technology. There’s this collective sense of “We’re on a mission.”

But what mission exactly? In my first post, “This I Believe”, I included ideas about fulfillment and humanizing work, but I’ve struggled to describe the broader sense of purpose that I’ve been feeling.

“I’m a Peer Progressive”

I found the words I was looking for in “Future Perfect”, a book by Steven Johnson (who also wrote “Where Good Ideas Come From” among others). He uses the phrase “peer progressive” to describe people using the power of networks - “webs of human collaboration and exchange” - to drive positive change, including social change. Progress is created by the combination of people networks and by the Internet, which continually "lowers the costs for creating and sharing information."

“To be a peer progressive, then, is to believe that the key to continued progress lies in building peer networks in as many regions of modern life as possible: in education, health care, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies.

What peer progressives want to see is fundamental change in the social architecture of those institutions, not just a Web strategy.”

He describes a wide range of current examples and future possibilities - from finding and fixing problems to funding innovation; from reducing traffic to reinventing elections. And he purposefully chose such a broad array of examples to show just how many areas of our lives could be rethought and reworked.

“And that is ultimately what being a peer progressive is all about: the belief that new institutions and new social architectures are now available to us in a way that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, and that our continued progress as a society will come from adopting those institutions in as many facets of modern life as possible.”

First Things First

Last week's post about the difficulties of changing any emergent system was “sobering” and even “depressing” to several people. But, I’m actually more optimistic than ever. While each individual’s attempts may be daunting, even quixotic, I am buoyed by the overall power and potential of peer progressives as a group.

“This is why it is such an interesting and encouraging time to build on these values. We have a theory of peer networks. We have the practice of building them. And we have results. We know that peer networks can work in the real world. The task now is to discover how far they can take us.”

And so, that’s my mission: to apply the theory and practice of peer networks to make the world better.

My particular starting point is inside one large corporation trying to make work there more effective and fulfilling. Then, I hope to do more, to build on that learning - the successes and the failures - to develop other peer networks and “discover how far they can take us”.

If you’re trying to change how your company works, you probably won’t

Impossible odds, and yet...  (AP Photo/Jeff Widener) If you’re trying to make work better, you may be feeling, as Margaret Wheatley writes, “exhausted, overwhelmed, and sometimes despairing even as you paradoxically experience moments of joy, belonging, and greater resolve to do your work.”

You may believe in and like what you do, but you’re under-gunned, under-staffed, and under-appreciated. And the thing you’re trying to change - the corporate machine that has dehumanized work - seems impermeable to change anyway.

Now what?

The management revolution that isn’t 

A recent article in Forbes claims “a veritable revolution in management is under way.”

That’s simply untrue. We’re not even close to changing how companies work. A few select anecdotes and some books on new management approaches don’t add up to much. (It’s like claiming the Occupy Wall Street movement revolutionized financial services. That movement was interesting, maybe even inspiring, but it fell far short of producing meaningful change.)

The revolution in the Forbes article includes the same themes that Deming, Drucker and other management experts wrote about decades ago. If they were alive today - Deming would be 112 and Drucker 103 - they would still be waiting to see many of the changes they prescribed.

What’s happening instead

Of course, there should be a revolution. More and more people talk and write about the benefits and the possibilities and the need. But there’s precious little actual change inside most big companies.

What’s happening instead is the near-extinction of the people inside large companies who are trying to change things. Not the pundits but the people leading change from the inside who know the processes, systems, and the culture of their firms and how to do the long, hard work of changing them.

Instead of such people becoming more powerful and more numerous, they’re getting crushed by the machines they’re trying to change. Some change leaders work in an unstable environment and lose their jobs in re-organizations. Others find the environment so hostile, they leave to join consulting firms or technology vendors.

Last week, I was in a room full of senior people whose missions were changing how our respective firms work. They were true experts and some were fantastic brand ambassadors for their firms. Yet, as we described our goals, our running joke was that one objective was simply to keep our jobs.

So many reasons to give up...

Even those who are doing the best work and who have the most experience are keenly aware they’re not driving the kind of change they want as quickly as they want. They’re still daunted by the tremendous challenges they face - cultural, legal, technical, political, organizational.

It’s not because they've misread the potential for change or because the technology isn’t good enough or anything like that. It’s because it’s still early. Because, collectively, we still don’t know enough about how to change these complex organizations, their people, and their deep-rutted ways of working. Because the corporate antibodies come out in force to attack anything that threatens the status quo.

Because it will take a long time, if ever, to realize the possibilities we see.

...and yet to persevere

Margaret Wheatley’s “So Far From Home” describes the challenges facing people trying to change complex, emergent systems like corporations. There are some beautiful passages about persevering in the face of those challenges - not for the ultimate outcomes (e.g., management revolution) but for the goodness of the work itself, for the people involved, and for the chance, however slim, of ultimately creating a better future.

“We need to continue to persevere in our radical work, experimenting with how we can work and live together to evoke human creativity and caring. Only time will tell if our efforts contribute to a better future. We can’t know this, and we can’t base our work or find our motivation from expecting to change this world.”

“If we choose to be warriors, we will find ourselves struggling day to day to be wise and compassionate as we work inside the collapsing corridors of power. We have to expect a life of constant challenge, rejection, invisibility, and loneliness. So it’s important to contemplate how much faith you have in people, because this is what gives you courage and the ability to persevere.”

People, indeed, are the key to surviving the vicissitudes of working on something you know to be good and right but which might very well fail, at least for you and your firm.

To fortify your resolve, seek out the people in your firm whose work and life are better as a result of your efforts. To help you be more effective, reach out to those leading change at other firms - not just to commiserate but to collaborate on solving common problems that slow your progress. Give generously to other change leaders who are just getting started. Extend your networks so that others in trouble have a safety net.

If you’re trying to change your company, you probably won’t. But draw on your connections with other people to give you "the courage and the ability to persevere." And never, never give up.