These people are experiencing the future of work. Now. 

Usually, discussions about the “future of work” focus on how things will change in years to come. We’ll all self-organize more, for example, and work in networks instead of rigid hierarchies. We’ll find and share information on social networks instead of email and one-way intranets. And so on.

Anticipating this, almost every company today has launched one or more large transformation programs, trying to become more agile, more collaborative, and more “digital.”

A few people, though, aren’t waiting for those programs to be implemented. For them, the future of work is now, and I got to see evidence of that last week in Munich and Erlangen. 

Part of the WOL CO-creation team at BMW

A chasm between here and there

Imagine you’re a company with a few hundred thousand people. You’ve been successfully working with a traditional command-and-control structure for over 100 years. Now, top management sees that you have to change. “In a VUCA world,” they’ll say, “we must move more quickly.”

But after the CEO’s speech, everyone will go back to their desk, surrounded by the same people, systems, and processes from the “legacy” way of working. Some will decide to wait and see if this change passes, like so many before it. For many others, their habits will be so deeply rutted that they won’t have the time or attention to change things. Even if they agree there’s a better way, they’ll be stuck.

Taking a step instead of a leap

When people at BMW and Siemens thought Working Out Loud could help their companies change behavior and corporate culture, the prospect of getting management support and changing so many minds and habits seemed daunting. 

So they tried a different approach, and it gave them a taste for how the future of work could actually work - not in some vague or abstract way, but in a way they could apply to other kinds of projects and programs. Here’s a summary:

  • The idea started with a few people and formed a cross-functional team.
  • They didn’t ask for permission or a budget.
  • They tested the idea with small, cheap experiments.
  • Word spread via internal and external social networks. 
  • Social networks helped them build a tribe inside the company - and learn from the outside.
  • They used feedback and social proof to get management support.
  • They opportunistically integrated their work into institutional programs to scale the movement.
  • They keep iterating and adapting, influencing more people, and the movement keeps growing. 

Two companies. Two events. Two milestones.

In Munich and Erlangen, what started as grassroots movements began to morph into something else last week. At a BMW event (tagged #BMWWOLCON on Twitter), a board member endorsed the WOL team's work and their growing movement in front of more than 500 people, giving it new authority and importance.

At the Siemens event, they reached over 200 people, signed up almost half to join the movement, and got four different groups (including HR) to commit “to bring WOL into official initiatives.” Here's a summary from the organizer on LinkedIn:

“Some numbers: Working-Out-Loud, Kick-off at Siemens Healthineers/Siemens, Nov 03
  • 200 participants, incl. folks from US, Brazil, UK and France
  • 20 people listening/ watching to streaming
  • 16 circles formed
  • 20 people directly registered to join a circle after the event 
  • 4 groups out of six formed to bring #WOL into official initiatives
... I am completely overwhelmed and glad. A huge thanks to all that made this self-organized grass-roots event & initiative happen.”

Organizational change that feels good

This is what the future could be like. The WOL movements at BMW and Siemens are examples of how good ideas can come from anywhere. Then they spread using elements of agile, lean, and design thinking: experimenting and getting feedback, learning in ways that are low-cost and low-risk, then leveraging the institution for scale when you discover what works in your environment.

I’ve seen that same approach at Bosch, Daimler, ZF, and other companies. I’ve seen the same passion & persistence when “work” isn’t just a set of instructions from the boss, but is something powered by people across the company who care deeply about a topic. After these events, someone inevitably volunteers "to spread WOL in my area too.” I think they do it not just because they’re fans of the method, but because they’re hungry for a taste of what work could be like. 

You can do it too. Try your own Working Out Loud experiment, create a movement within your company, and experience the future of work for yourself. Now.

8 companies in Germany

There have been meet-ups before, and even a company conference, but this was different. This was eight companies coming together to advance the practice of Working Out Loud. 

Daimler was our host, thanks to Lukas Fütterer and Melanie Raßloff from their Digital Life Team. They published images and updates from the event:

"With the spring arriving in Stuttgart, 15 practitioners from Audi, BMW, Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Telekom and Siemens discussed the status & co-create on the future of Working Out Loud in big corporations together with John Stepper #WOL #DigitalLife"

In front of Daimler's Digital Life bus. (First time "Working Out Loud" is on the side of a bus!)

“Co-create the future of Working Out Loud” is what really made this meeting extraordinary. Each company is already spreading WOL Circles in some way. This meeting was about how to do it better and faster. It was about what we need to improve and create, and how we will work together to do it. By the end of the day we had specific initiatives with different practitioners teaming up to drive them. Bernd Zimmermann, an HR executive and innovator at Siemens, described it in his blog post as “making the New Work work.”

In the TEDx talk last year I said, “If Working Out Loud does become a movement, it will be because of the people in the community.” Today was evidence of that. Combined, these eight companies co-creating the future have over 1.7 million employees. Together, we took another step towards making a difference. 


“Open, inclusive, and at a scale simply not previously possible”

When I heard her use that phrase, my first thought was of all the organizations who have innovation programs and digital programs and culture programs. I thought of the gap between their well-intended aspirations and their actual results.

Except this woman didn’t work in a big company. Her name is Sarah Parcak. She’s the winner of the 2016 TED prize, and an archaeologist whose goal is to protect the world’s cultural heritage. She’s looking for lost civilizations using satellite data, starting with Peru, and her approach is fundamentally different from what you see inside corporations. 

In most organizations, big ideas require a Program with all the traditional management roles that come with it. Perhaps you want to simplify operations, reduce costs, or accelerate innovation. The people contributing would be those specifically assigned or funded to do so. Aside from making suggestions, the only way anyone else might participate would be to apply for a job.

But Sarah wanted and needed more than that. She recognized that tapping into the cognitive surplus around the world could unlock possibilities and accelerate progress. By making things open and inclusive, she could attract the very people who could help her implement, improve, and build on her work.

The first step was sharing information, the satellite images, so that anyone could see them. Sarah’s team of experts is analyzing that data, but they're open to the possibility that others may see what they don’t.

She then goes much further than making data available. She invites contributions. For example, a local Peruvian professor is “helping coordinate and share the data with archaeologists so they can explore these sites on the ground.” It turns out the professor is also responsible for a drone mapping program, able to provide additional imagery that Sarah, “a satellite archaeologist,” may never have included on her own.

She partners with people and groups who can help with education, outreach, and site preservation. One group, for example, “empowers these communities, in particular women, with new economic approaches and business training. So it helps to teach them to create beautiful handicrafts which are then sold on to tourists.” 

Even you or I could contribute. 

“Already I've gotten thousands of emails from people all across the world -- professors, educators, students, and other archaeologists -- who are so excited to help participate.”

Maybe you’ve heard of this kind of effort before. Maybe you think of examples like Wikipedia or you've read articles about Innocentive. But what about inside your organization? Most of your people have never experienced this kind of open, connected way of working. Your management almost certainly hasn’t. So they ask traditional questions about benefits and they cite the lack of time and precedent, unable to see the possibilities unleashed by a way of working they’ve never encountered.

Paraphrasing William Gibson: the future of work is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Most companies have the business imperative and the tools to make programs “open, inclusive, and at a scale simply not previously possible.” They just don’t have the required behaviors.

One way to help them develop the necessary skills and mindset is to spread Working Out Loud Circles, and you may know of other ways. If your organization wants to thrive or even survive, you must give people the chance to experience a more open, connected way of working. If not now, when?