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.

If it feels like you’re trying to get something in return

He felt uneasy about Working Out Loud. After a few weeks in a WOL Circle at work, he felt like he was trying to win people over by doing something for them, and it seemed wrong. So he posted his concern on his company’s intranet, along with a question.

“My understanding of Working Out Loud is that I should contribute and ‘do good’ without the idea of getting things in return….On the other hand, I consciously create a relationship list where I collect the names of certain people who can help me with achieving my personal goal. Then I specifically target them with my ‘contribution’ - attention, support, whatever it may be. Effectively, I am trying to get their support by doing them favors.
What am I missing?”
If it feels wrong.jpg

Some responses

His colleagues responded with their own opinions and experiences, and the person managing the community shared the discussion with me. Some responded that they don’t expect anything in return from a particular individual, and yet believed that, across their entire network, there would naturally be a benefit to them. Others shared how the listing of names helped them to go far beyond the individuals they already knew in a purposeful way, and gave them access to learning they didn’t have before. One woman said she didn’t see it as currying favor with people but rather  “improving the odds” or “creating one’s luck.”

Everyone agreed that intention mattered, that the core principle was to offer things without expectations. I had the chance to send in my own reply.

"If WOL ever feels like you're ‘targeting’ people or trying to manipulate them into reciprocating, you should stop. That's not the intention nor is it a healthy, sustainable practice.
Think of your relationship list not as a set of targets but as people who can help you explore. You're not doing something TO them but rather being OPEN TO them, to their work and ideas and more. 
Each person is like a door. The greater the sense of trust and relatedness, the more that door may open, giving both of you greater access to each other's knowledge, resources, and other people. Now, if a particular door never opens, if a person never responds or you never develop any sense of relatedness, that's okay. Your contributions, if offered in a positive, empathetic way without expectations, can still benefit them (in ways you may never know). As you contribute to more people on your list, you simply increase the chances that you'll develop genuine trust & relatedness with some of them.”

And another question…

As the discussion unfolded, the topic shifted to the relationship list. After all, he wondered, if you’re offering things without expectations, why do you need a list? I replied, “If the relationship list makes the practice feel artificial, don’t use it.” 

The reason I put the relationship list in Week 1 of a Circle is because it helps you attune your attention, opening you up to people (and thus ideas, resources, and more) related to your goal. Right from the beginning, that simple act can help you see things you may have never noticed before. But if I’ve been working on a goal for a long time, or if I find the list to be a barrier of some kind, I may stop maintaining it. 

A practice like any other

Though there is a reason for each of the exercises in a WOL Circle, what’s more important is whether or not you find the exercise to be helpful. I added:

“You can think of your initial relationship list as “scaffolding” that helps you set up your practice. Eventually, you may no longer need it if you feel your practice can stand on its own.”

And that’s true for much of Working Out Loud. Like any practice, there are guides and traditions and even rules, but those are really just meant to help you get started. There is no one right way. Rather, the best practice is the one that’s right for you at a particular time, one you discover and adapt through practice, feedback, and...questions.

Victim or visible?

The group had been through years of budgets cuts and reorganizations, and they were tired of the continued change and uncertainty. Now, at the annual conference, a newly appointed leader addressed them.

She acknowledged all they had been through, and the reality of the financial challenges. She made it clear how much she understood and valued their work. She said she wasn’t interested in more reorganizations. 

Instead, she asked the people to make a change themselves.

What she had observed in her short tenure was that the people who knew about their work thought it was excellent. But those who weren’t aware of it thought the organization was broken somehow.

The key, she told the audience, was that they needed to be more visible. They needed to share their work - “what you’re doing and why it matters” - so that more people would be aware. Doing so would also give their supporters a chance to make their support visible. That was the best way to take control of the situation they were in.

She recognized this might feel new or even uncomfortable for some people. But without being more visible, the only other option was to be a victim of more changes and more cuts.

“Meet them where they are,” she told them, describing her early efforts using Twitter. She didn’t start because she loved it or because it came naturally. She did it because she wanted to engage people there and spread news of the good work that might be useful to them. 

As she finished her talk, she made it clear that “victim or visible” was a choice they had to make.

The next presentation was on Working Out Loud, and I tried to make that choice even easier, to help the audience take a step.

 

 

New WOL courses starting October, 2016

If your organization wants to help people improve their way of working, or wants a more open, collaborative culture, then the new Working Out Loud course is for you. It's designed to help you experience a change in your own habits and mindset, while you learn how to scale those changes across an organization.

In six 90-minute sessions, you’ll go through your own accelerated version of a Working Out Loud circle, and get live coaching from me throughout the process. You’ll see how applying the five elements of Working Out Loud, in small steps with the help of a peer support group, can lead to meaningful personal change and progress towards a goal you care about. You’ll also have two additional sessions to explore the practice further for you and your organization.

I’ll run the course at two different times, one for the US/UK/Europe timezones and one for Asia Pacific. The details are below.

If you’re interested, send email to john.stepper@workingoutloud.com for enrollment. Online registration will be available shortly. 

Who’s it for?

The new course is ideally suited for people interested in applying Working Out Loud inside their organizations, and who want to experience circles for themselves first. Many participants may come from one of the following areas:

  • Human Resources (e.g., Learning & Development, Talent Development, or Diversity)
  • Digital Transformation
  • Culture Change
  • Innovation

Some participants may ultimately opt for customized materials & training via the Accelerated Development Program. The course allows you to sample how this low-cost, scalable program can help your organization.

What’s included? How much does it cost?

I’ll be working with you directly throughout the course, joined by Moyra Mackie for the sessions in the US/UK/Europe timezones, and by Mara Tolja for the course in Asia Pacific. 

The sessions are all run via Zoom, a fantastic videoconferencing platform, so you can join from anywhere. All other interactions are via Slack, a messaging app that makes it easy for circle members to interact with each other as well as with me, Moyra, and Mara.

To begin, you’ll join a WOL circle with 4 other people, based on your profile. Here’s a complete list of what's included.

  • Six 90-minute sessions (30 minutes of live coaching from me + 60 minutes for your circle meeting)
  • Support for identifying your goal in Week 1
  • 60 minutes additional help after Week 3 
  • 60 minutes “What’s next?” session after the course completes
  • Optional one-on-one consultation for adapting the practice for your organization
  • Online support throughout the six weeks plus one week before and after
  • New 100-page Circle Coach’s Guide (available to course participants only)
  • Working Out Loud: For a Better Career & Life shipped to you
  • Certificate of completion

The cost is $995. (That’s about 895 euros, 745 pounds, or 1300 Australian Dollars.) For those who go on to procure the Accelerated Development Program, the course fees are applied as a credit.

When is it?

The sessions are on six consecutive Wednesdays, beginning on October 5th. The sessions are 90 minutes each. Weeks 3 & 6 have an extra optional hour for getting help and exploring possibilities after the course.

Dates: October 5, 12, 19, 26 & November 2, 9

The US/UK/Europe sessions are scheduled for 10am in NY, which is 3pm in the UK and 4pm in Europe.

The Asia Pacific sessions take place at noon in Sydney. That’s 9am in Singapore & Hong Kong, 10am in Japan, 2pm in New Zealand.

This is the third version of this course

In January, there were five sessions in one week meant for people already familiar with Working Out Loud. In June, I partnered with Helen Sanderson Associates and offered a different format, allowing people to experience a circle for themselves for the first time, and offering coaching on how to make them more effective. Helen and her team, led by Nicola Waterworth and Eve Holt, did a wonderful job. When participants were asked for one word to describe how they were feeling, they responded with this:

challenged; supported; connected; positive; uncomfortable; inspired; connected; encouraged; supported; learning; enthusiastic; helpful; excited; nourished; motivated; emotional; personally interesting; curious; inspired; brave.

This will be the third version of course, and I will be focused even more on live coaching and providing more material on how to adapt and spread the practice in organizations.

To sign up, just send me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com and I'll follow up with you directly. 

I am thrilled to be offering this course. I hope you, and ultimately your organizations, will find it useful. 

Working Out Loud: The Accelerated Development Program

I purposefully designed Working Out Loud Circles so that anyone could start one and anyone could spread them. It doesn't require money or training or permission. As a result, WOL Circles have spread widely across countries and companies.

But some organizations want more. Working Out Loud, after all, is a 21st-century skill that all employees would benefit from developing. One company refers to the Circle process as a “guided mastery program for networking and collaboration.” Other firms see it as a way to create a more open, collaborative culture, or as part of their digital transformation. I’ve often described it as “the missing piece.” For firms that have a strategy and technology, Working Out Loud Circles help them change behavior at scale in a way that feels good for employees while providing measurable benefits.

The organic spread of circles is a great way to start. And now there’s an option for organizations that want to accelerate the spread of the practice, scale it to many more employees, and increase the average effectiveness of each Circle.

It’s the Accelerated Development Program.

Overview

The program differs from traditional training in three important ways:

  1. It’s based on custom material created specifically for your organization.
  2. Employees learn by doing, building relationships related to a goal they care about and getting coached along the way.
  3. It’s sustainable. By the end of the program, the organization has developed a new learning and development capability, having materials and trained coaches that enable them to continue spreading the practice on their own.

It’s often the Learning & Development group that sponsors this program, although the impetus for change can come from other areas. The process can vary by organization, but it generally includes the same three simple phases.

Phase 1: Customize material

The public Circle Guides are aimed squarely at individuals and mostly refer to public technology platforms. So in this first phase, I work with an organization to rewrite the guides specifically for them. By incorporating language and examples that are familiar to members of the organization - stories, goals, technology, and more - it becomes easier for people to understand it and see how it relates to work and their career.

I’ll typically do some of this work on-site with a small core team of employees. That gives me a chance to train them on all aspects of what’s about to come in the next two phases and to prepare for those phases.

Time: 2 - 3 weeks

Phase 2: Train up to 50 Circle Coaches

In addition to custom material, the best way to make Circles even more effective and consistent is to train Circle Coaches. The training equips up to 50 people to handle practically any issue or challenge that comes up in a Circle so people can keep making progress. 

Here’s how it works. The training is all done live by video, so it’s flexible and location-independent. The group goes through a 6-week condensed version of the Circle process. Each week, they receive an hour of coaching from me and then break out into their Circle meetings of 4 to 5 people. Each person receives a step-by-step Coach’s Guide with tips and techniques, and has access to online support between sessions. 

This train-the-trainer technique is what make the process both more effective and scalable.

Time: 6 - 8 weeks

Phase 3: Spread the practice to 250 people

Now, each of the 50 trained Circle Coaches forms a new Circle with up to four new people, for a total of up to 250 people that will go through the Circle process. Circles are still peer support groups in which the Circle Coach is just another member, albeit one who can handle any issues that come up. In this phase, Circles go through the full 12-week process using the custom material, and the Circles meet independently.

This wave of Circles reinforces the training of the Circle Coaches and gives them a chance to practice. Throughout their time together, all participants have online support from me and the core team of employees, and there are regularly-scheduled Q&A sessions for further help and coaching.

Time: 12 - 18 weeks

A scalable, low-cost development program

By the time the program ends, the organization has custom material, a small army of trained coaches, and up to 250 people who have gone through the process. Everyone has books and workbooks, Coaches have a reference guide, and the core team has on-going access to other practitioners around the world. 

Your organization now has a scalable, low-cost development program you can continue spreading yourself. Larger firms may choose to keep training more Circle Coaches in other locations or divisions. The more people who develop the habit of Working Out Loud, the closer you’ll get to a more agile, collaborative, engaged workplace. 

If you would like more information or want to discuss the program for your organization, please contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com