“The bird which doesn’t hide itself gets shot” 

Next week, I’ll deliver a talk and workshop in Beijing, and it will be my first time there. A month later, I’ll go to Shanghai for a different company, and be part of a public Working Out Loud event on June 23rd. A woman who grew up in China commented about it on LinkedIn.

“I am curious how the WOL culture goes with Chinese culture. I was told to be “modest” when I was a kid - don’t show it even if you are good... And we have sayings like “the bird which doesn’t hide itself gets shot”.

That saying stuck in my memory. There are other translations, and there are similar expressions in other countries. Sometimes it’s "the shot hits the bird that pokes its head out” (枪打出头鸟) or “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (出る釘は打たれる). Common interpretations are that conformity is valued over individuality, and that being open is somehow inappropriate or risky. ”Standing out invites criticism."

My first reaction to her comment was that it's your intention that matters. Indeed, it makes all the difference.

“Expressions like those are why WOL emphasizes the need to lead with generosity, to frame your work as a contribution that might help others.”

The “WOL culture” isn’t about trying to stand out or show how remarkable you are, but about being helpful, about leading with generosity as a way to build authentic relationships. If it feels fake or isn’t offered as a contribution, it isn’t WOL.  A post on Twitter yesterday highlighted this different:

“I expected #WOL to be all self promotion: look at me, how to get attention for what you are working on. [Instead] the focus was on was being empathetic, encouraging and helping others. Complete polar opposite.”

In China, WOL may not be as foreign as one might think. For example, they already embrace the concept of guanxi (关系),  "a central idea in Chinese society” that's related to “personalized social networks of influence…[in which] there is an emphasis on implicit mutual obligations, reciprocity, and trust.” Working Out Loud can be a way to extend this idea, making the networks even more open, and the relationships based more on empathy and giving freely than on obligation. As another Chinese expression says, "If you always give, you will always have.” (如果你总是给你永远拥有)

Are there differences between cultures? Yes. Is China different than Europe or the US? Yes. But “culture” comprises a wide range of human behaviors across huge numbers of people, and 1.3 billion people don’t fit comfortably into a single box. We have much more in common than the labels and expressions might lead us to believe, including our capacity for generosity and our need to build meaningful connections.

I’m looking forward to my visit.

A tale of two inboxes

Imagine you’re on holiday and you think about checking email from work. How does that make you feel? How do you deal with that feeling?

I’m off this week, so this was more than a thought exercise. Over several decades, I have learned to dread email while I’m on vacation. When I ignored it, my background stress would accumulate and burst into the foreground. When I checked it often, there was bound to be something upsetting that would color my mood for the day. Gradually, I developed a system whereby I would hide my phone and limit my email-checking to specific times, but even that didn’t eliminate my anxiety.

This week was different. As I thought about the mails I had received, they were almost all positive and helpful. For sure, some involved “work” - follow-ups or requests or some kind of issue - yet even those emails were friendly and nicely-worded. “It’s odd,” I told my wife, “but I actually look forward to checking email now.” 

Of course, I’m working for myself for over a year, but I don't think that explains the difference. Companies aren't necessarily bad and being independent isn't necessarily good. Instead, I think the difference between inboxes isn’t due to whether you’re an employee or not, but due to the culture of your organization, and how people feel about being a part of it. 

I claim that even in big companies we can learn to relate to each other - and to ourselves - with more compassion and generosity, with more kindness. We can discover how much more effective and fulfilled we can be. It requires behavioral change at scale which makes it difficult - and yet that’s something I’m confident we can accomplish. 

My old inbox used to contain things done to me, and my new inbox seems to contain things done for me. Which inbox would you rather have?

If your innovation program isn’t producing much innovation

Your company almost certainly has an innovation program. They may call it something else, or include it in a culture change or digital transformation effort. But no matter the name, companies are all looking to create a more innovative culture, one where individuals contribute more ideas and, importantly, collaborate to bring those ideas to life.

If you have such a program, it probably isn’t producing the kind of change you want. Why not? Because despite the tools you bought and the events you held and even the exhortations of management, most people simply aren’t sure what to do and how to do it.

Some companies I’m working with are about to try something different.

Is your current innovation program a bad idea?.jpg

Where Good Ideas Come From

Most companies think of their innovation program as a big suggestion box. Sometimes they'll offer a prize in an effort to get more people to deposit their Powerpoint slides into the box, and organize a committee of managers to select the best ones. Unfortunately, this tends to breed competition and hiding of information instead of collaboration, and produces little actual work beyond the slides. Sometimes, companies even set up a special Innovation Group, a creative silo of its own that’s apart from everyday work and forever struggles to be relevant or make an impact.

For a better understanding of how innovation actually happens, Steven Johnson’s oft-cited book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is an excellent primer. Analyzing a wide range examples from over centuries, he showed that innovation isn’t the results of a hidden genius and The One Big Idea, but from the exchange and interaction of many ideas.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos,” he wrote. What he meant was that new ideas typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people who recombine and reconfigure them till the result is an innovation of a kind.

Barriers to innovation

We know this is true, and there is example after example after example of people working in an open, connected way. to accelerate the pace of innovation. Yet we rarely see it at work. Why? 

After watching yet another TED talk describing how a group made their work visible, connected with other experts, and went on to create something new, I wrote about the barriers I saw most often in the workplace:

"I don’t know how." Despite the large number of examples on the web, the vast majority of people have simply never experienced sharing their work online and collaborating with others as a result. And some may not have a convenient facility for publishing content at work.
"I don’t know if it will be useful." For the minority of people that know what to do and have a way to do it, there’s often an uncertainty as to whether their contributions would be valuable. They also struggle with how to get the attention of relevant people.
"I won’t get credit." A more insidious barrier is when people feel their contributions won’t be recognized. Particularly in a management system of competitive ratings and bonuses, there is a heightened sense of internal competition. Feeling like you’re fighting for your share of a finite pie will grossly inhibit your willingness to contribute and collaborate.

A different approach to innovation

The companies I’m working with now are trying to address these barriers in a novel way. They still have the tools, the events, and the management exhortations. But they are also providing employees with help. 

Together, we’re adapting Working Out Loud Circles to give employees hands-on, practical experience. The peer support groups, using Circle Guides tailored for experimentation, begin with smalls steps such as making an idea visible and searching for individuals and groups related to their idea both inside and outside the company. Over a period of weeks, participants practice outreach and ways to deepen relationships that lead to collaboration while learning how to make more of their thinking, learning, and other work visible in a way that’s useful to others. Throughout the process, managers are paying attention to what’s happening online, providing recognition and support, asking questions, and offering their own contributions

Each individual that participates shapes their reputation while they develop their personal network. As Circles spread, so does a culture of innovation, of “putting more parts on the table” (as Steven Johnson says), and reshaping and recombining them.

Instead of a funnel of ideas leading to a committee, or a beauty contest to see who has the best slides, resources can be allocated based on who has taken an idea, built a tribe around it, prototyped it, and gathered support and evidence.

Innovation isn’t just about an idea or a program, it’s about a practice. 

The Ripple Effect at Work

“Contagion will seep through almost any coordinated collection of people.”

When I first came upon that sentence, I had to stop and read it again. It’s from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, a book about the neuroscience underpinning our social interactions. As evidence for his statement, he cited “simulations done in a now-classic study at Yale University.”

I had never heard of the study, so I looked it up. 

The Ripple Effect Study

The full title is “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior.” The study was done by Sigal Barsade, and published in the Administrative Science Quarterly in 2002.

Participants were put in a room and told to act as managers on a salary committee that would allocate a pool of bonus money to their employees. There was no single leader in the group, but rather each person was representing a candidate from their division. They were give two “mixed-motive goals”:

  1. to obtain as large a bonus as possible for their candidate and 
  2. to aid the committee to make the best use of the available funds and maximize the benefit to the company as a whole.

What no one knew was that there was a seasoned actor in each group whose assignment was to be confrontational and downbeat in some groups and helpful and upbeat in others. The question was: how would the mood and energy of one participant affect the other members? How would it affect the process and the outcomes?

The results

I have been in exactly this situation, sitting in a room with colleagues allocating a bonus pool or deciding on promotions. It was supposed to be a systematic process based on each individual candidate’s merit. But in reality it was always a complex human calculus based on social capital (who had more influence) and aggression. My own experience was that these meetings could quickly become contentious and unproductive.

“This study showed that emotional contagion does occur in groups and inasmuch as emotional contagion changes people’s moods and serves as affective information, people are “walking mood inductors,” continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.”

Importantly, the contagion wasn’t limited to negative feelings. The study showed that “positive contagion” improved not only how the participant’s felt but also affected their process and their performance.

“There was a significant influence of emotional contagion on individual-level attitudes and group processes. As predicted, the positive emotional contagion group members experienced improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance.”

Daniel Goleman summarized it this way: 

“The feelings that pass through a group can bias how all the group members process information and hence the decisions they make.”

Like a pebble in a pond

The subtitle of Social Intelligence is “The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships.” The field of social neuroscience is providing evidence for what you may have already understood intuitively: how we approach work can influence how the people around us work and feel.

How might you apply this new science in your next meeting? How might you spread ripples of positive behavior at work, at home, and throughout your life?

How working out loud circles could transform your organization

There’s a growing chasm between what executives say they want for their organizations and the experience of their employees. If you interview management at any large company, for example, they’ll talk about their desire for building an open, collaborative culture, the importance of being a learning organization, and the need to develop talent. Now talk to individuals working in that organization and you’ll discover a competitive environment, an inability to find even basic information, and a vast number of people who simply don’t care enough to get better at what they do.

It’s not that the executives are disingenuous. It’s just that the expensive, top-down change programs they roll out - for cultural change, collaboration, talent management - simply don’t work.

So here’s a different approach, one that’s employee-centered, self-organizing, and free.

How it would work

Working Out Loud CirclesI first described working out loud circles a few months ago. They’re groups of 4-5 people who meet over 12 weeks to help each other accomplish a personal goal by working out loud. Over that time, through actual practice, circle members learn specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

Our experience with the first few circles has been extremely positive and that’s led to the idea of having entire organizations embrace them. To do that, here are the five most important things you would need to know about implementing circles in your organization:

  • Circles are employee-driven. It’s key that employees choose to participate, work on a goal that’s important to them, and trust that what happens inside the circle is confidential. If you impose manager approval or reporting requirements, you won’t realize the benefits.
  • Circles are open to anyone. Since circle members will be practicing basic 21st-century skills, access should not be restricted to only those with a certain title or those deemed to have potential. The most important criterion is the willingness to make an effort to learn.
  • Circles meet 12 times for one hour. These meetings could be outside normal business hours if necessary, depending on the organization. Individuals will also need to do work related to their goal in between meetings.
  • Instructions are provided in Circle Kits. The kits are concise guides for running each of the 12 meetings, including simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • All support for the circles is online and free. We’re developing a site that will host a rich FAQ and a range of other resources for developing specific skills. The site will also host stories and feedback from individuals and other circles.

How management could help

People could form circles outside of their company, of course. Between the Working Out Loud book due this September and the Circle Kits being released soon, independent groups would have the necessary resources to be successful.

But forming circles inside a company would have a number of advantages. The people there already have much in common, making it easier to form connections and even exchange their circle experiences. Also, if the organization uses an enterprise social network like Jive, Yammer, IBM Connections, Socialcast, Podio or similar offering, people will have a convenient platform to work out loud. Employees who work out loud at work are personally more effective, help the firm capture knowledge, and make it easier for others to access that knowledge.

While the circles are employee-centered and the resources I mentioned are free, there are still things that management could do to help. For example, by endorsing circles as an employee development offering or promoting them at employee networking events, they’d remove any doubts about whether employees are allowed to form them. They could provide time to participate in them, reducing possible interference from middle managers. They could motivate more people to participate by sharing stories of individuals and teams that are working out loud for their own benefit and that of the company.

The benefits: collaboration, learning, and engagement 

Working out loud combines the age-old principles for building meaningful relationships with the modern abilities to share your work, get feedback, and interact with others who share your interests. It wraps all of this in a mindset of generosity. You share and connect not to show off or create a personal brand but to genuinely help other people. If you were to describe someone who worked out loud, you might say she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful.

The circles would help your employees to feel like that, to be like that. The practice over time and the peer support would enable people to finally break free of old ways of working and of thinking about work. They could finally develop new habits at work that tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and relatedness. Doing so in a visible way, together with the support of the firm, would accelerate the spread of these positive behaviors across the organization, changing the culture.

At a minimum, some circle members might learn to more readily search for people and content related to their work. Many will build a larger set of more meaningful relationships at work, enabling them to collaborate more effectively. Still others will feel, like Barbara from last week’s story, that “working out loud changed my life.” Combined, all that learning would fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to the organization.

How working out loud circles could transform your organization

There’s a growing chasm between what executives say they want for their organizations and the experience of their employees. If you interview management at any large company, for example, they’ll talk about their desire for building an open, collaborative culture, the importance of being a learning organization, and the need to develop talent. Now talk to individuals working in that organization and you’ll discover a competitive environment, an inability to find even basic information, and a vast number of people who simply don’t care enough to get better at what they do.

It’s not that the executives are disingenuous. It’s just that the expensive, top-down change programs they roll out - for cultural change, collaboration, talent management - simply don’t work.

So here’s a different approach, one that’s employee-centered, self-organizing, and free.

How it would work

Working Out Loud CirclesI first described working out loud circles a few months ago. They’re groups of 4-5 people who meet over 12 weeks to help each other accomplish a personal goal by working out loud. Over that time, through actual practice, circle members learn specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

Our experience with the first few circles has been extremely positive and that’s led to the idea of having entire organizations embrace them. To do that, here are the five most important things you would need to know about implementing circles in your organization:

  • Circles are employee-driven. It’s key that employees choose to participate, work on a goal that’s important to them, and trust that what happens inside the circle is confidential. If you impose manager approval or reporting requirements, you won’t realize the benefits.
  • Circles are open to anyone. Since circle members will be practicing basic 21st-century skills, access should not be restricted to only those with a certain title or those deemed to have potential. The most important criterion is the willingness to make an effort to learn.
  • Circles meet 12 times for one hour. These meetings could be outside normal business hours if necessary, depending on the organization. Individuals will also need to do work related to their goal in between meetings.
  • Instructions are provided in Circle Kits. The kits are concise guides for running each of the 12 meetings, including simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • All support for the circles is online and free. We’re developing a site that will host a rich FAQ and a range of other resources for developing specific skills. The site will also host stories and feedback from individuals and other circles.

How management could help

People could form circles outside of their company, of course. Between the Working Out Loud book due this September and the Circle Kits being released soon, independent groups would have the necessary resources to be successful. [UPDATE: the book will be available in April 2015. The circle guides are here.]

But forming circles inside a company would have a number of advantages. The people there already have much in common, making it easier to form connections and even exchange their circle experiences. Also, if the organization uses an enterprise social network like Jive, Yammer, IBM Connections, Socialcast, Podio or similar offering, people will have a convenient platform to work out loud. Employees who work out loud at work are personally more effective, help the firm capture knowledge, and make it easier for others to access that knowledge.

While the circles are employee-centered and the resources I mentioned are free, there are still things that management could do to help. For example, by endorsing circles as an employee development offering or promoting them at employee networking events, they’d remove any doubts about whether employees are allowed to form them. They could provide time to participate in them, reducing possible interference from middle managers. They could motivate more people to participate by sharing stories of individuals and teams that are working out loud for their own benefit and that of the company.

The benefits: collaboration, learning, and engagement 

Working out loud combines the age-old principles for building meaningful relationships with the modern abilities to share your work, get feedback, and interact with others who share your interests. It wraps all of this in a mindset of generosity. You share and connect not to show off or create a personal brand but to genuinely help other people. If you were to describe someone who worked out loud, you might say she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful.

The circles would help your employees to feel like that, to be like that. The practice over time and the peer support would enable people to finally break free of old ways of working and of thinking about work. They could finally develop new habits at work that tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and relatedness. Doing so in a visible way, together with the support of the firm, would accelerate the spread of these positive behaviors across the organization, changing the culture.

At a minimum, some circle members might learn to more readily search for people and content related to their work. Many will build a larger set of more meaningful relationships at work, enabling them to collaborate more effectively. Still others will feel, like Barbara from last week’s story, that “working out loud changed my life.” Combined, all that learning would fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to the organization.

A weekend with a 7000 year old tree

The Jomon Sugi The Jomon Sugi, “cedar tree from the Jomon era”, is on Yakushima, a small island in Japan. When it first started to grow, human beings were still in the Stone Age.

Pictures of the forests seemed other-worldly to me. So, thanks to gracious, meticulous planning by my wife, I set off to meet a friend and hike through a magical place.

In addition to observing natural beauty, I experienced elements of a culture I'd like to see inside more corporations.

Respect for time

Before dawn & our first hike

My trip from Kobe to the Yakushima mountains and back involved trains, buses, vans, planes, and a ferry. Every single one was on time - to the minute. And it wasn’t just the vehicles, but the people in them. Though we had to leave our hotel at 4am, our guide was on time as were the 2 other hikers in our tour as was every one of the 50+ people who had reserved a seat on our bus.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but things are less rushed, less stressful, when everyone and everything is on time. And when you don’t waste your time waiting for things, both your mood and and your productivity improves.

Respect for the environment

Mindful of where you've been & where you're going

After our first meal, I asked our guide “Where do we put our garbage?” “Motte kite,” he said. “You bring it with you.” The idea was to leave the mountain as untouched as possible. Extra miso soup? Drink it or carry it. Need to use a toilet after you’ve past the last one? Bag it and bring it back down. It’s why the small island is so pristine despite  300,000 visitors a year.

We showed respect for the inside environment, too, by removing our shoes and putting on slippers before we entered the hotel or onsen. Even before using a toilet, we’d remove our slippers and put on yet another pair of shoes.

Besides the hygienic benefits, these simple actions made you more mindful about where you are and where you’ve been.

Respect for people

Polite, respectful..."Konnichiwa!"

Throughout the trip, I noticed how everyone was so polite and helpful, mindful of how their actions might affect others. We never once worried about our things being safe. There was never jostling in line to get a ticket or to take a photo at a particularly beautiful spot.

One sign of respect I found particularly charming was how hikers acknowledged each other up and down the trail. I must have heard and said “Konnichiwa” a thousand times. A smile, eye contact, and that simple verbal handshake contributed to an atmosphere of good will, reminding us of our shared purpose and shared humanity.

Leading with generosity

Our guide for our 2nd hike

There isn’t any tipping in Japan. We paid the listed price for the tour and didn’t have to think about money for the rest of the trip.

So when a guide offered us snacks (like the surprisingly delicious salted seaweed “shio kombu”) I was able to accept them more readily. When they provided advice on things to wear or other trekking options, I wasn’t wondering “Is she trying to sell me something?” Since extra money wasn’t a motivation, I was able to appreciate and respect their contributions all the more.

Planning for good fortune

Deer in a clearing

After about 7 hours of walking, our guide asked us, “Are you up for taking a different route that’s a bit longer and more difficult?” The honest answer was “No.” But each of us was a bit too embarrassed to say so, and we agreed to take the other path.

Off the main trail, there were no other hikers and the forest seemed even more mysterious. After a steep climb, we entered a small clearing where some deer were grazing. Everything was so quiet. We sat with them for fifteen minutes or so, hushed, simply enjoying being present, being happy.

It wasn’t just luck, of course. The guide knew the spot well. And everyone in our group was in good shape and, aside from me, well-equipped. (Thankfully, my friend made up for my unpreparedness.) I noticed how the planning and preparation wasn’t just for efficiency, it was for agility, allowing us to take advantage of opportunities we’d have otherwise missed.

Constancy of purpose

A once-cleared forest is alive again

The forest is rich in cedar trees, ideal for making shingles. For hundreds of years, logging was the primary economic activity and whole areas were cleared. But in the late 1960s, around the time they re-discovered the Jomon-sugi, they stopped logging and began reforesting and reseeding the mountains.

Now, almost 50 years later, the once-cleared valley in this photo is full of trees. Now, a sizable part of the mountains is a World Heritage Site, and tourism comprises 50% of the economic activity on the island.

Could your corporate culture be like this?

How does everyone seem to share these values? There weren’t posters at the elevator telling you to have respect for time and for people. Instead, those behaviors were embedded and reinforced by how people spoke to each other. By actions large and small like when they showed up on time. By visual cues and shared rituals, like the slippers at your door, reminding you. And by social support, like having parents, teachers, and guides who share their knowledge and traditions.

Now, think about where you work.

Do people meet their commitments, including being on time for meetings? 

What’s the condition of the pantry, restrooms, and other shared spaces?

Do people greet each other and smile in the elevator?

Do you question people’s motivations for even simple gestures?

Does all your planning result in bureaucracy or allow you to be opportunistic?

Is all the work focused on just the next 6 or 12 months?

What struck me over this weekend in Yakushima was how simple and universal the positive cultural elements seemed to be. And how difficult it was to achieve anything nearly so positive inside big firms even when they had more resources.

If you have a corporate culture program at work, are you relying on just words to change things? Or are you doing much, much more to shape behavior in a positive way?