Case Study: Scaling a company’s WOL movement by 5x

We sat in a conference room at the company headquarters in Germany. Their grassroots movement had reached about two hundred people in two years, and had resulted in benefits that HR found compelling. Now they wanted to reach a thousand employees in the next twelve months. 

In a few hours, we created a plan that will get them there and beyond. The plan includes three strategic elements. 

Normalize

Organic movements, whether it’s WOL or Agile or Design Thinking, typically reach only a small fraction of the company - the employees who are willing and able to trying something new. It could be less than 1% of the workforce. To reach the other 99%, you need to clearly show how the new method or tool relates to work, make it easy to practice, and integrate it into everyday processes. 

To make WOL easier to practice at work, the company in this case study opted to customize the free WOL materials (they purchased a license to do so). That enabled them to include their own examples in each week of the Circle Guides, along with technology links, testimonials from management and colleagues, and corporate branding. They purchased premium materials (mobile-friendly Video Guides and a custom-designed Circle Journal) for a fixed number of employees to have a more convenient and memorable experience. The rest would use customized PDFs on the intranet. 

To integrate WOL into existing processes, they first targeted the leadership development program. That program already has managers coming together for multi-day workshops, and is looking for ways to extend the learning and networking beyond the events in a cost-effective way. We conducted a separate workshop to design the pilot, which we intend to launch in a few months. In the meantime, we decided to target at least one more program, which will likely be on-boarding for one of the divisions. We may even include a pilot in one of their production facilities.

Globalize

Although the company is based in Germany, they have a presence in 180 countries. Like many organizations, they want to spread WOL globally as a way to increase connectivity between locations and divisions. 

A common approach for supporting and spreading a new method is to create a network of ambassadors or advocates, and we agreed to do something similar. One option was to use WOL Mentor training that consists of a two-day workshop. (This format has been offered by Sabine Kluge and me at Bosch and Daimler, and in several cross-company sessions with great success.) However, this company chose to design a new three-month program so I could offer personalized coaching over time. With this, in addition to giving Mentors the knowledge to support and spread Circles, we can help them be leading examples of what you can accomplish by Working Out Loud.

The first class of thirty WOL Mentors kicks off later this month, and we purposefully looked to include employees from locations where we want to ensure WOL can spread. We anticipate conducting another class next year.

Infrastructure

The third element of our plan isn’t as exciting as the first two, perhaps, but it is just as important: figuring out roles, responsibilities, and processes. 

A key element of scaling a WOL program, for example, is creating a cross-functional team that owns and executes the plan. (The first person to implement this idea is Katharina Krentz at Bosch, and their WOL Team continues to deliver extraordinary results.) But what is expected of each person on such a team? Can it count as work time? What if a manager says no? Can you put WOL in your development program or objectives for the year? Good answers to these questions reduce resistance and issues, and make it easier to get things done. The same goes for questions related to Mentors and sponsors.

It’s wonderful to have a grassroots movement that spreads freely, led by volunteers. And yet at some point the all-volunteer movement inevitably runs into challenges with budgets, policies, and politics. In this case, I met with the WOL Team and we began resolving some of the questions and ambiguity in that conference room in Germany. We also agreed that I’ll be an extension of their group and support them throughout the year. 

A common pattern

In more and more companies, we see how the organic WOL movement slowly grows and demonstrates the value of self-directed, peer-to-peer, experiential learning. At that point, the company has a choice. They can continue to rely on organic growth and see what happens next, or they can create a strategy that combines the employee-led movement with the leverage and reach of the institution. It’s that kind of purposeful step that makes it possible to develop skills, habits, and new perspectives at scale, making the kind of difference that inspired the grassroots movement in the first place. 


Two new WOL Coaches in Austria & Switzerland!

I am thrilled to announce two new WOL Coaches: Barbara Wietasch in Austria and Stefanie Moser in Switzerland. Both of them are longtime contributors to the WOL Community, full-time independent coaches, and lovely people! I’ve enjoyed working with them this year and look forward to many more projects together.

Here are a few words that Barbara and Stefanie chose to include on the WOL Coach webpage, where you can also find their contact details and links to more information.

“Barbara lives in Austria and, after her first WOL experiences, decided to spread the word by coordinating the translation of the Circle Guides into Spanish. For more than 15 years, Barbara has been helping companies in Austria, Germany, East Europe, Mexico & Spain with learning & development programs, and has already led the first WOL implementation in an Austrian Public Health Organization. Through WOL, her relations, visibility, and growth mindset have changed in a very positive way, and she loves to share her experiences as coach and facilitator.”

“Stefanie is based in Switzerland, and made her first WOL steps in 2017. Convinced of the potential, she soon played a key role in building up the WOL community in Switzerland. She hosts a monthly virtual meetup and works together with Sabine Kluge on German-Swiss meetups. After many years in organizational development, Stefanie founded her own consulting company in 2014. Her focus as transformation expert lays on using the wisdom of all the organization on their journeys. Her purpose is simple: work with joy.”

I am deeply grateful to all the WOL Coaches for their support and contributions. There are now 10 WOL Coaches in what has been a successful pilot program this year. In 2020, I’ll look to launch a larger, more formal program that will accept applicants. If you want to register your interest in such a program, send email to support@workingoutloud.com.

The Lindau Illusion

I was sitting in a train station in Germany. It was after 9pm. It was cold and damp, and I was hungry. My train had been cancelled and there were two hours to kill until the next one. The only open shop was a kebab place that wasn’t exactly vegetarian-friendly. I had a beer to try and boost my sour mood. 

Tired and bored, I stepped outside. All I could see through the rain were a few desolate hotels. That’s when I declared my judgment of the place: “What a dump.”

This past week, though, I had a wildly different experience. I walked from Bregenz to Lindau along the Lake of Constance, about 7 miles. I had never been to either town. I could see the Alps in the background, and caught myself humming songs from the Sound of Music. (An “American thing” I was told later.) The sun was glinting off the lake and there was a wide variety of birds everywhere. When I reached Lindau, I walked through the historic old town and up the steps of the lighthouse where I was treated to a breathtaking panoramic view. Everywhere I turned there was a beautiful vista or building or image I wanted to capture and take home with me. “What a stunning place,” I remember thinking. “I have to come back.”

The next morning, I needed to take several trains to get to my destination and my first transfer was at the Lindau train station. As I wheeled my suitcase towards the other platform, a jolt of recognition hit me. “I’ve been here before!” It’s the same train station, the same town, that I had declared a “dump” a year earlier.

I can’t believe it. I walk up to where I sat in the cold with my bad food and beer. I step outside and see the same hotels which now, bathed in warm sunshine, look beautiful. I turn right and I see the lake and the lighthouse right from the station. Somehow I missed them both last time in the dark and rain. 

Same town, two fundamentally different experiences. Just based on what I happened to see or not see. I stop and think: If I can be so wrong about an entire town, what about people? What judgments do I make based on a passing glance or scraps of information, missing oceans of stories and wonder beneath the surface? 

A beautiful lesson on multiple levels. 

Lindau from the Lighthouse

Lindau from the Lighthouse

Bregenz Festspiele

Bregenz Festspiele

Lindau

Lindau

The hills are alive….with the Sound of Music…

The hills are alive….with the Sound of Music…

The Marriage Retreat

My childhood memories of my parents are mostly of them arguing. They each had their own stresses - not enough money, too much work, unfulfilled dreams - and it often erupted in disagreements and downright meanness to each other. 

Then, when my sister, brother, and I were a bit older, they went to a marriage retreat. 

The Happy Couple

The retreat was, quite literally, an escape from their day-to-day stresses. Guided by skilled, encouraging professionals, they had a chance to learn and experience a better way of relating to each other. When they came home, they were like a different couple. Sweet words. Small kindnesses. The anxiety we often felt was replaced with warmth and love. It was like magic.

In less than a week, though, the first argument appeared, then another, and soon things became “normal” again. 

I hadn’t thought about the retreat for more than thirty years. But over the next 6 weeks I’m participating in a string of events and conferences and meet-ups. Like the retreat, they’re uplifting and they often leave participants inspired and full of hope. But then everyone goes home. The music and the memories fade. Without a next step - the hard work of deliberate practice over time - the effects are short-lived. Our habits and our environments are almost always too powerful to be changed by a one-off event.

We each have our own version of a retreat in work and life. They can be important and restorative. And yet it’s the steps you’ll take after the retreat that make a sustainable difference possible. That’s where the real magic happens. 

Who approved this?!

When my new bosses arrived in New York, one from Frankfurt and one from London, I was on a list of people they wanted to see. I didn’t know what to expect.

It was after yet another reorganization in the bank’s IT department, in which my team and I had been dispatched to Communications. In our meeting, I described what we did - driving adoption of modern collaboration tools - and how we built the largest internal social network in financial services. I shared some of the many stories of value and employee engagement.

After a few minutes, the expressions on their faces went from friendly to neutral to incredulous. “Anyone can post something?” they asked, making clear the recklessness of what we had done. “Who approved this?!”

In that moment, I knew my career in Communications would be short-lived. The managers across the table did not seem to know or care about innovations in communications. What mattered more to them was maintaining monopoly control over the information employees received and how they received it. 

But how could this be? After all, one of our cultural values was “innovation.” There was a Communications campaign with posters to remind us. The company had innovation hubs in Berlin and Palo Alto and there were annual pilgrimages to Silicon Valley. We were repeatedly told we needed to be more agile and entrepreneurial. Why wasn’t our innovation celebrated?

Years later, I now realize the problem wasn’t with my new managers but with the culture. At my company and at almost every corporation I work with, employees are treated like young children or worse: Do as you’re told. Always ask permission. Speak when spoken to. 

The people I meet across companies and countries - well-educated, responsible adults - tell me how they are subject to the whims and moods of their manager. How they have to account for each hour. How they have to speak only to the appropriate level or risk being scolded. Despite all the sound and fury regarding the need for innovation and failure and continuous learning. etc, etc. there remains a sea of managers desperate for control and a sense of self-worth, waiting to ask: “Who approved this?”

I could have quit my job, or I could have quit trying. Instead, I spent my time in the Communications Department purposefully building a network of people inside and outside the company who found value in what I did. That gave me power my bosses couldn’t take away. It also gave me options and helped me feel better each day.

What is it you need approval for at work? What will you do when you don’t get it?

Treated like a child at work (or worse)

Treated like a child at work (or worse)


If your digital transformation looks like this, you’re doing it wrong

There are four of this German manufacturer’s products in my New York City apartment. The engineering quality is excellent, and they are beautiful to look at. The oven, a square of black glass and stainless steel, heats quickly and evenly. The dishwasher is whisper-quiet. Though this company’s products cost twice as much as other brands I’ve used, I did not hesitate to order their washer & dryer when our old ones had to be replaced. 

The company does so many hard things well, yet they continue to miss something obvious and important.

“Please make it stop!”

When we first moved into our apartment, the building was new and each of the 265 units came with a high-end dishwasher. After our first dinner there, I loaded it with dirty dishes, turned it on, and went to sleep.

Soon after, my wife and I woke up to an insistent beeping. Half-awake, we wondered what it was. A smoke detector? Some other alarm? After stumbling in the dark, we discovered it was the dishwasher. I turned it off and went back to bed.

The next day I mentioned it to two neighbors and learned they were also woken up by their dishwashers, and they couldn’t figure out how to make it stop. Not the woman with a Ph.D. from Stanford. Not the partner in a corporate law firm. They had resigned themselves to organizing their lives around the beep. 

I searched the Internet and discovered numerous complaints, and also a solution that only a mad scientist could expect consumers to find and follow. (It took me four attempts.) Why would such a quality manufacturer force customers to do something like this?

  1. Turn off the dishwasher.

  2. Press the Program Select option and, while holding it down, switch the machine back on. 

  3. Keep the Program Select and power buttons down until the bottom right indicator light comes on.

  4. Press Program Select four times. The Inlet/Drain light should now be flashing.

  5. Hold the Program Select button down again until the Inlet/Drain indicator stays on continuously.

  6. Release the Program Select button and the press it again once quickly.  This should toggle the buzzer activation to off.

  7. Turn off the dishwasher.

How would you turn off the beep?

Cursing in the laundry room

Now it’s ten years later, and almost every company is offering “smart” products. The washer and dryer I purchased is highly-rated and they come with Internet connectivity and an app. The machines notify me, for example, when the laundry is done, and also report (oddly) the precise temperature of the water and the revolutions per minute of the interior drum.

The day the new equipment arrived there were piles of laundry to do, and I was eager to get started. But the small display instructed me that I must first follow setup instructions and connect the machine to my network, which it could not find. I read the manual. I repeat all the steps. No connection. 

I downloaded the app and re-read the manual. I try again - and it works! But still I cannot do laundry. I must now “calibrate” the machine (a 2-hour process!) before setup is complete. Failing to do this step forces me to start from the very beginning. I do this twice. 

Half a day later, I load dirty clothes into the machine, cursing the engineers responsible for this experience. “Didn’t anyone at this company try their own product?!?” 

The missing piece in most transformation programs

I purposefully did not mention the company’s name because they are not the exception but the rule. Almost every company has a digital transformation program of some kind, but they all tend to focus on the technology and forget about the people. 

  • Did they ever observe a real customer trying to use their product?

  • Were employees invited to share their feedback and offer ideas for a better experience?

  • What if, instead of reporting the RPM of the motor, the “smart” appliances noticed how long setup was taking and pointed me to help? Or noticed that I am consistently using only one of the 20+ programs (“Normal”) and gave me useful tips for how to make the most of the machines?

Despite all their technology, the manufacturer has created a connected product that leaves me completely disconnected from them. As a result, they have no insight into my experience, and miss out on valuable information they need to improve. Until companies include empathy and human connection as part of their transformations, the promise of digital will remain unfulfilled, and customers and employees will remain unsatisfied. 

The Mainentance (sic) program on my new washing machine.

What’s the opposite of a zombie?

I still remember where I was when he used the word to describe many of our colleagues. We were leaving the office after a meeting, and the regional head of our division was talking about what he saw in the lobby at work each day.

“You look around,” he said, “and there’s no spark. They’re like zombies.” 

He wasn’t saying they were untalented or weren’t good people. Just that he noticed a palpable lack of energy. They were going through the motions of work but exhibited a kind of lifelessness.

What would the opposite of that be, and how might you help more people feel like that instead?

In Alive at Work, Professor or Organizational Behavior Dan Cable described his research on the topic, including an experiment involving the on-boarding of new employees at a Wipro call center in India. (The experiment was also popularized in The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, and replicated in other environments.)

New hires were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group went through the traditional Wipro orientation, which focused on skills training. The second went through an orientation in which a senior leader talked about the company, asked newcomers to reflect on why they might be proud to work at Wipro, and gave them a Wipro-branded sweatshirt. In the third condition, the new employees were asked about “times they used their best characteristics” and then ask to share their personal stories with other new employees in the group. At the end of the session, they were given a sweatshirt with their name on it. 

Six months later, the researchers found that the employees in the third condition had significantly higher customer satisfaction ratings, and employee retention in the group was better by 32%.

Dan Cable calls the approach and the feelings it engenders “activating your best self.” The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, calls the feeling “zest, a positive trait reflecting a person’s approach to life with anticipation, energy, and excitement.” In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte describes it as a feeling of vitality.

Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden heartfelt qualities to the workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the subject of some 5 year plan. 

What the on-boarding research shows is that even small efforts which individuate employees and humanize a company can lead to measurable business benefits.  (“But in all my years of working with companies,” Dan Cable writes, “I have not seen a company use this approach.”)

One of my goals in spreading Working Out Loud is to show we don’t need to be limited to research experiments or to a few techniques in the first days at a company. We can help employees activate their best selves on their own, throughout their career, so instead of zombies at work we have more people feeling fully alive.

Disengaged at work.jpg


Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded

The experiments described in The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization research paper are both quite simple. Yet they capture fundamental truths about how we relate to the work we do.

Imagine you’re one of the MIT students who volunteered for the experiments described below. What would you do?

Experiment #1

In the first experiment, you’re handed a sheet of paper filled with typed letters and paid 55 cents for finding ten instances of two consecutive ones. You’ll be paid 50 cents for analyzing a second page, 45 cents for a third page, and so on. Participants perform the task under one of three conditions. (Subjects didn’t know about the other conditions or their labels.) 

In the Acknowledged condition, the subjects were asked to write their name on each sheet prior to starting the task. The instructions explained that after completing the task, they would hand the sheet over to the experimenter who would examine it and file it away in a folder. 

In the Ignored condition, the subjects were not instructed to write their name on the sheets, and in fact none did so. Moreover, the instructions explained that, after the subject completed the task, the experimenter would place the sheet on a high stack of papers. The experimenter in fact did so without examining the completed sheets. 

The Shredded condition was the same as the Ignored condition except that the instructions explained that the completed sheets would be immediately put through a paper shredder. As the subjects turned in the sheets, the experimenter shredded them without a glance.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Experiment #2 

In the second experiment, you are asked to build a kind of Lego figure called a Bionicle. You’re paid $2 for the first one you build, eleven cents less for the next one, and so on down to 2 cents for the twentieth Bionicle and beyond. In this experiment, there are two conditions.

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk. 

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Results

You can readily guess that the MIT students did more work if they were in the Acknowledged or Meaningful conditions. What most people can’t guess is just how much more work. “Almost half of the subjects in the Acknowledged condition were willing to work until the wage dropped all the way to zero,” far out-pacing the other students. Subjects in the Meaningful condition built 40% more Bionicles, and also built them faster. The small signals of recognition and purpose made a significant difference. 

One of the researchers, Dan Ariely, describes the results in a popular TED talk titled “What makes us feel good about our work?” Recognition and purpose needn’t be lofty ideals, he said. They can be as simple as someone acknowledging your work and making it possible for you to see that you contribute, even tangentially, to some objective. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had bosses who have done the equivalent of ignoring or shredding your work. What do you do when that happens? Do you hope they’ll change, or pray for a new boss? How do you feel?

Whenever I found myself working in the “pointless” condition, I would be miserable. Then I learned how to make my work visible so others could see it and use it. That made it possible for me to gain a feeling of recognition and purpose from anywhere, from anyone. It made my work better and made me happier.

“Identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply,” the researchers said, “but ignoring the dimension of meaning may be quite expensive, for employer and for society.”

What conditions are you working in? What will you do about it?

Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded.jpg

Drip, drip, drip

There seem to be more and more storefront signs like these in New York City. (And perhaps everywhere?) The kind with the hand-drawn witty saying or motivational quote designed to grab your attention. 

This one worked.

On the way to Yoga Vida in Tribeca

On the way to Yoga Vida in Tribeca

It’s truly ancient wisdom, as Ovid wrote it (in Latin) well over two thousand years ago. “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force, but through persistence.”

I passed it as I was going to a yoga class with my wife, something I never imagined participating in when we first met. Now, though, the class is one of my favorite things to do together and a highlight of my week. As I passed the sign, I reflected on how many drops it took to wear down my resistance and form a new habit, at how long it took for me to change.

Ovid’s wisdom applies to work, too. Yesterday, a WOL Circle shared a photo from their final meeting. In the picture were five strangers from Yemen, Romania, Germany, and Switzerland who came together for 12 weeks, forging connections and sharing beautiful smiles. I never imagined how such a thing might be possible, never mind that I could be part of making it happen. 

Drip, drip, drip. 

Of course, there are other ways to “hollow out a stone”. Yet the other methods I’ve tried tend to feel more stressful and less sustainable. Whether I want to change myself or change the world, I prefer to follow Ovid’s advice. 

Drip by drip, step by step, Circle by Circle, we each need to keep going till a path emerges and we find a way to make a difference. 

***

Note: I’ll be on holiday in Japan for the rest of August, using the time to be with family, explore a country I love, and work on several new WOL methods. See you in September… 

Yemen 🇾🇪, Switzerland 🇨🇭, Romania 🇷🇴, Germany 🇩🇪 … Amazing.

The WOL CircleFinder

If you wanted to try a WOL Circle, how would you find other people to join you?

A little over a year ago on a rainy weekend in July, Leonid Lezner created a tool to make it easier, and he called it the CircleFinder. Since then over 1000 people have used it to form over 150 Circles .

Today it’s an official part of workingoutloud.com, and it’s a first step for matching people in a wide variety of ways and helping them have a better Circle experience.

Click on the image to see the new CircleFinder

Click on the image to see the new CircleFinder

The birth of the CircleFinder

When I approached Leonid about the CircleFinder recently, I asked him why he volunteered to build it in the first place and what he expected from it.

I was really impressed by how the circles are matched at Bosch. People simply have to enter their name in a spreadsheet and highly motivated colleagues would take their request and match them with a circle. Nothing similar existed for circles outside companies, so I got the idea that the WOL community urgently needs a simple tool to match circles and to automate the process.

I wasn’t expecting that it would be used at all. But after a few months, I noticed that more and more people were signing up and creating circles and recommending it on Twitter and Facebook. 

The best thing for me is when people contact me to thank me. They tell me about their Working Out Loud experience and that the CircleFinder was the enabler to start or join a circle. For me it means I’m an active participant in the WOL movement and can give something back to the community.

What’s next?

Then I asked Leonid what his plans were. I knew he has a full-time job and also produces an excellent podcast (in German) that is becoming more and more popular. Did he want to keep working on the CircleFinder?

After almost one year now I have to admit that the development and operation of such a platform is a time-consuming hobby. Family, work and my podcasts are already bringing me to my limits. When John asked me about the future of the CircleFinder and said he would like to take it over as a part of the official WorkingOutLoud website, I was really excited.

We exchanged ideas about what WOL software might look like in the future, including rebuilding the CircleFinder from scratch to include a wide range of functionality, from forming Circles in new ways (at events, inside companies, based on profiles) to helping Circle members throughout the 12 weeks.

The WOL CircleFinder is a fantastic start, and I am extremely grateful to Leonid for what he created and for his willingness and effort to migrate it.

If you would like to form a Circle or help others do so, please consider using the CircleFinder at circlefinder.workingoutloud.com. If you have an idea for how the CircleFinder can be improved, please contact me.

Thank you, Leonid and thank you, WOL Community!