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.