The manager who works out loud

Whenever I talk to organizations about open, connected ways of working, this question inevitably comes up: “How do you get leaders to do it?” 

It’s a problem. Most often, managers simply don’t have the time to learn a different way of leading. Or their habits are so deeply-ingrained that doing something different is too difficult. Sometimes the challenge is digital, in that they’re unfamiliar with communication and collaboration tools besides email. 

But there are absolutely managers who are working differently - who are leading in a more effective, engaging way. Those that do experience a wide range of benefits.

 

Explaining decisions, building trust

In one IT department, the security team abruptly cut off access to Github, a a valuable online tool used by thousands of developers at the company. Employees were shocked and angry. To them, it was a sign that management had no idea how work got done and was completely out of touch. People complained on the enterprise social network, and someone posted a question, asking the executive if they could “shed some light” on the decision.

The executive responded. He started by recognizing the importance of the issue to developers. Then he explained his reasoning in clear, logical terms, while presenting a near-term compromise that was already being worked on. He also invited others to the discussion, and what followed was a set of artifacts, proposals, and conversations that involved hundreds of people. 

Instead of simply publishing a policy statement, the executive listened and engaged. Instead of ignoring the widespread sentiment that management were idiots, he built trust and confidence.

Management By Wandering Around (MBWA)

Wherever I've worked, it was taken for granted that senior managers would travel to different offices to visit with staff there. It was seen as a necessary way to stay in touch with how things were going in a given location. Usually, the manager would deliver a town hall presentation, meet with local managers, have dinner with his team, and be off to the next city. Staff generally appreciated the attention, but the trip could easily involve a week or more, including a lot of time in transit.

There are merits to “management by wandering around,” and it became especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s. For managers used to new communications tools, it’s now easier than ever to do it. These managers don’t wait for the annual trip. As part of their routine, they “wander” around their social intranet throughout the week. In a few minutes, they can come into contact with people, ideas, and issues from around their organization and their company. They can discover the answer to “How’s it going?” at a scale never imagined when MBWA was first taught in business schools.

“Digital Leadership”

When trying to communicate something - a new strategy, say, or the latest culture program - managers traditionally had to rely on “cascading the message.” They would assemble their leadership team, impart their messages, and instruct the group to go forth and spread what was said to their respective teams. And so on. What typically happened, of course, resembled “Chinese Whispers” or “Telephone,” the game that shows “how easily information can become corrupted by indirect communication.” 

One benefit of digital leadership - using modern tools to influence and engage an organization - is that you can eliminate the cascades and reach people directly. Even better, the channels work both ways. For example, an employee at one company had an idea that he believed would make the organization more innovative and collaborative. So he posted it online, and mentioned several executives. Much to his surprise, the executive posted a comment. That led to an exchange and then a series of meetings and proposals. 

With that one comment, the executive signaled to hundreds of people (and perhaps eventually thousands), that he was paying attention, was interested in innovation, and actively supported people who came up with ideas. That’s a more powerful message than any bullet point on any slide cascaded throughout teams, and helped strengthen engagement and rapport.

One more benefit

Some particularly open and curious managers have experimented with Working Out Loud Circles to develop new skills, and I was struck by some of their comments:

“I am overwhelmed by the feedback I got throughout the journey…Our WOL Group is fantastic and our meetings are always one hour of inspiration to move forward. This approach really can change the way you interact with people." 
“I have experienced a completely different way of working on and solving tasks… My circle was both peer pressure and "self-help group" for me, providing motivation and really changing things.”

The more a manager works out loud, the more their view of the organization changes from acronyms, budgets, and processes to human beings connected by shared purpose, shared interests, and shared struggles.

It took me a long time to realize this. For most of my career, I simply did what I saw all the other managers doing. I spent my time in back-to-back meetings, barely knew the hundreds of people in my organization, and felt like I was supposed to have all the answers. It was not a recipe for enjoying work.

If there's a manager you care about, send them this post, and help them work out loud by serving as a reverse mentor or inviting them to join a WOL Circle. Help them take a step towards a better way of working, one that's better for them as well as the people who work with them.

FAQ: “How do we get management support?”

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

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

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

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

#1. Leverage internal social proof

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

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

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

#2. Conduct a formal survey of circle members

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

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

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

#3. Leverage external social proof

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

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

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

Pilot idea: Include them directly

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

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

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

Other answers. Other questions.

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

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

Co-creation with Bosch and Postshift

Over the past six weeks, I’ve been working in a way that’s both unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and yet it has produced better results. 

I thought sharing my recent experience might help you if you ever try something similar. 

The goal

It was June, and I was about to start my first formal engagement with Bosch. I had been collaborating with the team there for about nine months, helping them spread Working Out Loud Circles and learning what worked and didn’t work for them. They had produced remarkable results, and now they were looking to apply Working Out Loud to teams and leaders. 

These innovations would open up new possibilities for spreading the practice. WOL for Teams would require adapting Working Out Loud Circles for groups with shared goals and networks. WOL for Leaders would require different steps, and wouldn’t be circle-based at all. I developed two new sets of guides, and planned for a weeklong trip to Stuttgart. 

Then the Bosch team surprised me and another company, Postshift, by asking us to work together. 

The essential element it requires

From the beginning, I knew that Bosch had been working with Postshift for years in a much broader capacity, helping them with their overall digital transformation. Lee Bryant, a founder of Postshift, is an expert I’ve long respected, and his companies have helped a wide range of companies “create more resilient and adaptable business structures for the 21st Century.”

Think for a moment what your reaction might be. If you were Postshift, you might wonder why there is another person doing work that you might well do, with a client you’ve built a strong relationship with over years. If you’re me, just having started a new company, you might wonder if you’ll be run over by a more established group. Or if your work will stand up to their scrutiny.

And yet there we were, in a conference room, going through WOL for Teams & WOL for Leaders, and preparing for workshops and pilots. 

I was immediately struck by how, instead of starting from a defensive position, anticipating all that could go wrong and wrangling over a contract, we started from a position of trust. That trust was earned by the Bosch team because of all their contributions over time. It was also earned by Lee, who has an excellent reputation and had given me helpful advice on several occasions. 

The results (and embracing uncertainty)

In the room, we worked together as if we had done so many times before. Cerys Hearsay and Lee from Postshift had perspectives on the client and on digital transformation that led to significant improvements to the material I had written. Later in the week, Lee presented at the first-ever Working Out Loud conference, and he put WOL in context with all the other things Bosch was trying to do. His talks throughout the day were insightful and generous. He even blogged about “Working Out Loud for Teams & Leaders” at postshift.com.

The results, unambiguously, were better than what I had done on my own, and Bosch will pilot the new concepts in the Fall. But where will this co-creation experience lead? I’m not certain.

It could lead to more work with Bosch (or not).

It could lead to more collaboration with Postshift (or not).

It could lead to new products and services I could offer to other clients (or not).

For sure, though, I already have new ideas from collaborating closely with experts I respect. I have access to possibilities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. I have learned how I can work with other partners better next time. 

Working with Bosch and Postshift, I experienced how, perhaps more than ever, trust is the currency of collaboration. It’s what makes new forms of experimentation and learning possible. It’s what enables you to preserve relationships even when things don’t work out. It’s what enables you to enjoy the process, and makes it more likely you’ll build on your successes.