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)

When WOL doesn’t work

It was Silke’s comment in the WOL Community that inspired this post.

“Hello, everyone.
While it is quite easy to find enthusiastic to enthusiastic reports about #WOL, I find it hard to find posts that say it didn't work and why. As an L&D manager I am always interested in both: when does a method work (probably) and when should one do something else? Not every method is suitable for every context.
Do you know of any texts / articles / reports about the failure of WOL Circles? German or English doesn't matter. DANKE!”

If you care about making something better, you have to be open to learning from negative experiences. Here are some of the most common reasons for WOL failing to make a difference for an individual or an organization, and here’s what we can do about it.

Broken Circles.png

For you

The three top challenges by far are related to logistics, choosing individual goals, and managing to do the exercises each week. 

To align the schedules  of five people 12 times, whether it’s for lunch or personal development, can seem nearly impossible.  Everyone’s time is already fully allocated, and it’s natural that personal and business demands disrupt attempts at planning ahead. As a famous film director once said, “80 percent of success is just showing up” - and that’s the biggest issue for WOL Circles.

Goals are another major challenge. I originally thought choosing a goal would be easy, but it isn’t. In later versions of the Circle Guides, I included more instructions in Week 1, but for some people it’s not enough. They wind up picking a goal that doesn’t spark their curiosity or interest, or that’s too big or small, and it’s not enough to sustain their motivation for the full 12 weeks.

A third challenge is finding time to do the exercises. I purposefully packed the agenda week so the pace would be fast and people wouldn't be bored. I also provided additional sections in the guides if you needed to do less or wanted to do more. Still, for some people it’s too much in an hour and they want to spend more time on exercises. Others want more time for discussion. Some Circles never find a balance, and people may get frustrated and leave,

For your organization

The challenges in an organization are different. The spread of WOL seems to follow a common pattern: 

  1. A person or group experiments with WOL Circles.
  2. They tell friends & colleagues, and more Circles form.
  3. A grassroots movement forms, including a small core team (or “co-creation team”) of volunteers that emerges to spread WOL.
  4. The WOL team secures institutional support, integrating WOL into existing HR programs, or as part of change management for digital transformation or innovation or culture programs. 

The proliferation of Circles can stop at any point in between these different stages. Maybe the initial Circle didn’t have a good experience. Or a core team never emerges and the grassroots movement remains small and ad hoc. Sometimes, even in the face of a passionate and persistent people, the institution is resistant to doing things differently.

One thing I’ve observed is that it’s usually not an issue of company culture, but about people. I’ve seen WOL spread in even the most conservative, hierarchical organizations because of the persistence of people who felt that WOL helped them, and they were committed to helping others at their company. 

But there are a few places where change fatigue has set in. Maybe the company is under threat, or going through yet another major reorganization, and it’s all people can do to make it through the day. WOL may be “a lifeboat in a sea of change,” but they’re too tired to row.

What you & I can do

For all of these challenges, I’ve seen practitioners try different experiments and come up with innovations that help. They’ve found ways to ease the logistical burdens for Circles, trained WOL Mentors who can help with goals and other challenges that may come up, and even begun conducting “Week 0” meetings so people have a better understanding of what’s involved and expected before they commit to a Circle. For my part, I’m doing my own experiments, continuing to work on ways to make Circles easier and more engaging, and creating more resources for those who want to spread the practice.

Though WOL isn't a perfect method, I'm more optimistic than ever. Because every day I see feedback from people like Karin in Vienna who wrote something quite poignant about her Circle experience:

"If I had to describe in a word what I have learned through #WOL in the last few weeks, then that word would be 'courage'."

What if you could have that feeling? What if you could help others have the confidence to give voice to their opinions and ideas, to work in a more open, connected way, to be generous and even kind at work? How would that change your company's culture?

As Silke said, “Not every method is suitable for every context.” Yet by openly sharing what worked and didn’t work - by “working out loud about Working Out Loud” - we can help more people and make a bigger impact. Whether you make a difference for yourself, for your Circle, or for a movement of thousands of people, it all starts with making the attempt.