“People are messy” (and other lessons from self-managing teams)

A friend once shared some pithy wisdom about humanity that I’ve returned to time and time again. “People,” she said, “are messy.” 

As human beings, we’re wired to want control, and self-determination theory describes much of what motivates us. Yet we’ve also evolved a highly sophisticated sense of hierarchy and social status, spending much of our brain activity on calculating how everyone relates to everyone else.

The tension between these innate drives is particularly evident at work, where we desperately strive to find our place in the very hierarchy we don’t want submit to, and where we need to cooperate and collaborate to get things done. It’s even more acute (and interesting) when it comes to self-managing teams. 

Here are some things I’ve learned from observing such teams trying to spread Working Out Loud in their organizations. 

“Who will lead our self-managing team?”

The spread of WOL Circles in an organization usually begins when someone tries one, tells their friends, and Circles organically multiply. As they spread over a few months, a number of individuals emerge who care about WOL and want to do more. Now what? 

This is a critical juncture. If these early adopters don’t coalesce, the movement grows slowly or fizzles out as the early adopters move on. But sometimes the individuals tentatively come together to discuss their motivations and aspirations. They start to coordinate the next steps, and the first few seeds become the beginning of a grassroots movement.

Critically, leadership comes from contribution, not appointment. The people who care more tend to do more - more organizing, more experimenting, more outreach - and a “co-creation team” forms. It can be fragile, though. Conflicts at this stage, whether due to differences in style or substance, can cause the group (and the movement) to split or disintegrate completely. Somewhat ironically, ego can be the bane of self-management.

“The Grass Ceiling” 

As the WOL movement in an organization starts to grow, other possibilities and challenges emerge. The opportunities to integrate with existing programs and to scale to more locations and divisions may well require resources and the shifting of priorities.

This is another critical juncture. If the co-creation team continues to run without a budget and relies solely on volunteers, the grassroots movement hits some hard limits. Over time, the enthusiasm for the original idea is worn down by the slow pace of change and the bureaucratic resistance of the organization. 

Instead of trying to fight the way things are, successful co-creation teams leverage them. They shift from being a completely independent group to partnering with HR & other transformation managers responsible for existing programs. They seek executive sponsors for political cover and for resources.

The team may still be self-organizing, but they attach themselves to the hierarchy in a way that enables them to make a bigger, more sustainable difference.

A different kind of "secure attachment"

A more subtle example of self-management is a WOL Circle itself. Circles are purposefully designed so anyone can start one without budget or permission. The Circle Guides give people some structure, but how and when to do the work is up to the Circle members. They’re self-managing and often (but not always) self-organizing. 

But how do you get them started? What do you do when a Circle needs help? What if they struggle midway through or someone drops out? 

The varying responses to supporting Circles reminds me of attachment theory in parenting. Some organizations are completely hands-off. Others insist co-creation team members attend some Circle meetings or involve themselves in fixing issues a Circle may be facing.

The results are predictable. Without any help at all, some Circles aren’t as effective as they could be. With too much meddling, the Circle members lose their sense of autonomy and accountability, and start to see their helper as the person responsible for their progress (and issues). The co-creation team suffers too, as they struggle under a growing support burden they created.

The best approach is a kind of secure attachment. Circles are left to manage themselves and do the work on their own, but they know they can reach out to someone for support when they really need it. To facilitate this, some organizations are creating networks of certified experts across the company to ensure Circles can readily find trained help if (and only if) they want and need it.

Some remarkable results

Is this revolutionary? No. But it is remarkable that people can drive change using this kind of hybrid approach, combining self-managed initiatives with institutional support. 

As evidence of this are the results of the HR Excellence awards in Berlin late last week. One of the winning submissions was from a group of eight companies - Audi, BMW, Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Telekom - who are spreading Working Out Loud. 

The recipients were the self-managing teams who, without budget or permission, introduced and spread a movement inside their respective companies. Even more remarkable, they decided to organize themselves into a cross-company community of practice to share innovations that could help everyone accelerate the growth of those movements. Their companies all celebrated their achievement, and several now have board-level support.

Yes, people are messy. But given enough space to experiment, enough confidence to resist fighting for status, and enough support to keep going, we can make work more effective and fulfilling than it’s ever been.

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.

You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself? 

The broken radio at Duane Reade

I first noticed it a few months ago when I stopped in for some medicine. Something was wrong with the music in the store. It sounded like a staticky radio playing on a blown speaker. How annoying, I thought to myself. (Duane Reade, for those of you who don’t already see one every few blocks in NYC, is a part of a drugstore chain with 400,000 employees and $117 billion in revenue.)

A few weeks later, I was there again, and so was the same radio. Surprised that they hadn’t fixed it already, I asked the cashier if there was something she could do about it.

“I wish I could!” she said. “Isn’t it terrible? Customers complain about it, but there’s nothing we can do.” Another customer chimed in, “Yeah, it’s awful.”

Over the following few weeks, whenever I returned to the store, there were different employees and we had similar discussions about the radio. They were all nice and helpful - and frustrated.

A different approach: Fixing anything, anywhere in NYC

It just so happened that I had very different but related experience in my neighborhood when I noticed a stop sign was missing at an intersection near our local park. 

In this case, there was no helpful cashier to talk to about the problem, but there was something even better: 311. When I noticed the missing stop sign, I opened the app on my phone and reported it, including the exact location and a photo. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I got a reply within three days that the problem had already been investigated.

Service Request #: C1-1-1373798521
Date Submitted: 02/28/17 12:36:48 PM
Request Type: Street Sign - Missing
Details: Stop
The Department of Transportation inspected the condition and opened a repair order. Repairs of this type are corrected within 14 days.

Four days later, I got another mail that the problem was resolved. Still doubtful, I walked outside to see for myself, and there was a shiny new stop sign.

A simple way to fix the radio

My point isn’t to criticize Duane Reade management. They handle complicated supply-chain logistics and pharmaceutical regulations at a scale I can’t even imagine. Yet despite that sophistication, they’ve missed one of the best ways to improve their company and the customer experience: Give employees a voice.

I noticed this all-too-common situation five years ago when I was still working in a big company, and saw how customers often have more of a voice than employees.

“When something doesn’t work at home, you might complain on Twitter or use your smartphone to report the problem. Or you’ll search for a solution on-line and fix the problem yourself.
But what do you do at work? Probably nothing.”

Even back then, a simple solution was available. We let employees post a problem on our new enterprise social network so that anyone could share customer feedback or report an issue, and others employees could respond with related incidents and solutions. That would accelerate improvements, and make visible to management problems they might never be aware of otherwise. It was empowering.

The cashier at Duane Reade suggested I fill out the customer survey that's printed on every receipt, somewhat ironically named drelistens.com. I had seen it many times before, and this time I filled it out.

What about your own organization? If you had the equivalent of a broken radio, what could your employees say or do about it? Do they even have a voice?

 

The enemy within

It all seemed terribly important at the time. There were factions and disputes, often within the same division or sub-division, at every company I worked in.

When I was in the IT department, for example, the enemy was the infrastructure group. When I was supporting a banking business, the Fixed Income executive threatened to have me fired if I shared anything with the Equities group. Usually, we referred to the enemy by their acronym. I still remember when GIS CM was at odds with GIS CB. 

It’s laughable now, but only from a distance. Up close, the threats - to our group’s status and to my own compensation - seemed very real.  I used to think that internecine warfare was an unavoidable consequence of working inside organizations, or perhaps a problem of how we designed them. Now I see it’s much deeper than that.

When incentives & organization are to blame

A disturbing experiment in 1954 showed how easily people can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other. It was called the Robber’s Cave experiment, and it involved 22 eleven-year-old boys in a three-week summer camp.

“The boys were broken up into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. In the first week, the boys in each group bonded by hiking, swimming, cooking and eating together. In the second week, the researchers tried to induce conflict between the groups by holding several competitions. The winning group would get a trophy. 
Over the course of the week, the competition became intense. A loss in a game of baseball resulted in name-calling. A loss in a grueling 48-minute tug-of-war led to the “enemy” camp being raided. After the final competition, at the awarding of the trophy, a fistfight broke out and adults had to step in.”

When management is to blame

The famous Milgram experiments in 1961 showed how quickly we cede our empathy and compassion in the face of authority.

“How many people would continue all the way to the level marked “Danger: Extreme Shock” even in the face of obvious distress they were causing? Milgram polled his colleagues and “psychiatrists predicted that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board. The actual answer was 600 times that…
‘What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience.’”

When we run out of excuses

For sure, the culture of a place can make bad behavior more or less likely, but that doesn’t absolve the individual from the choices they make. Every email, every meeting, and every conversation in the hallway presents a choice. Pay attention to what you and your colleagues say about other people when they're not around. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?

I was as quick as anyone to label someone, to criticize them, to assign them motives and agendas when in truth I had little actual understanding. How could I? I never asked, never wanted to know, and it was simpler that way. How limiting that was. 

Five years ago, before I was thinking about Working Out Loud, I started looking for ways to mitigate bad behavior at work, and I was thinking about how technology would help people relationships. 

“Social tools and practices make it easier than ever to fix this. To connect people across organizations. To build relationships based on more than acronyms. To create purposeful social networks focused on company goals instead of on managers in the hierarchy.”

Since then, I’ve learned technology is only one possible part of the solution. I’ve learned that, although new tools may make it easier to change how people relate to each other, and certain kinds of managers and cultures can help, we don’t have to wait for these things. 

Defeating the enemy within requires that we see each other as human beings connected by common interests, concerns, and struggles. That’s a mindset and a set of skills and habits that anyone can develop. It just takes practice. 

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.

Asking for permission

It may seem odd, but I enjoy working with big companies. More precisely, I enjoy helping the people who work there. Having been an employee in large corporations for decades, I can relate to what employees experience. I know the many slings and arrows they have to face in the workplace, and how they can affect you over time.

One of those things is having to ask for permission.

No good deed…

Not all companies are the same, of course. But there seems to be a mania about control, about the manager having to know and approve of what each of his direct reports (ah, the military language!) is doing.

Sometimes it’s about money. Can I buy pizza for my team to celebrate our milestone? Sometimes it’s about time. I’ve been invited to a free conference to learn from other companies. May I go? Sometimes, it’s just about control.

One time I was invited to give a talk related to my project at another location in my company. My division had announced a travel freeze, so I told the host she would have to pay expenses, which she did. The morning of my talk, though, I received frantic calls and emails from my boss at 7am. It turns out his boss (who, ironically, was traveling) wanted to know why I was in another city. When I explained how the event related to our goals and that there were no expenses involved, the objection they raised was that I hadn’t asked for permission - and that it should never happen again. 

The new normal

At the time, I thought perhaps this was about me or about a dysfunctional organization. But now that I’m working with a wide range of companies, I see that it’s quite normal. 

I see how the very same companies who want more innovative, agile cultures are the ones that systematically rob people of control, either through their policies or through the caprice of managers trying to validate their position in the hierarchy. I see how experienced, talented employees who desperately want to do good work are forced to ask permission for even the simplest of things.

What choice do you have? 

You probably know some exceptions, the kinds of people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. I’m thinking of notable examples like Celine Schillinger at Sanofi, Harald Schirmer at Continental, and Katharina Krentz at Bosch. I know that each of them has faced resistance in the pursuit of doing meaningful, important work. Yet they’ve all found a way to do it and lead change. Over time, by working in an open, connected way, they’ve become fantastic ambassadors for their companies.

They are indeed exceptional. But what about everyone else?

If you’re a manager, you might start by asking yourself a question the next time you feel the need for control: Is this necessary? Rules and policies are fine, but stifling creativity and engagement hurts everyone, including managers. 

If you’re an employee trying to do good work despite the constraints, look to people who are already finding a way to do it. Their openness and consistent contributions over time are what provide them with some level of career insurance. After all, it’s harder to punish someone whose contributions are publicly validated by others. Also, their larger personal networks give them options, and thus more control of their own careers.

Several companies I work with are genuinely trying to create corporate cultures that are more innovative, that encourage more experimentation and a bias to action. To achieve that, we’ll need a different kind of permission, the kind that says, “I trust you to do what you think is right. Please go ahead.”

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.

“Would you talk to our leadership program?”

WOL for the organization

WOL for the organization

I’ll admit to being surprised at being asked. One reason is that I have an aversion to most management programs - talent management, performance management, innovation management. Also, I never expected the Human Resources department of a large global firm to link Working Out Loud with leadership. But they did.

Introducing Working Out Loud via HR and executive development presented a new opportunity. My talk included some of the usual things:

Then I focused on the more senior managers in the room. How would they “contribute to people in their organizations to deepen the relationship"? Why should they?

I started with the universal gifts of appreciation and recognition. And since the firm already had an enterprise social network, each contribution could be visible and ripple through the organization. Coming from an executive, a simple “Follow” can signal I see you and be meaningful. A Like can mean I recognize your work. I described how an “Ask Me Anything” demonstrates openness and accessibility. How a comment shows their interest in listening and a willingness to engage. Small steps to get started.

I showed them how they could do these simple things in 15 minutes a week.

After the talk, one of the executives came up to me and told me that, when he would ask for questions after a talk in front of a big audience, his people were afraid to speak up. He wanted to change that.

He saw how things could be different if people knew it was safe to be open and curious. He wanted and needed an organization where people could share knowledge, solve problems, and innovate without waiting for instructions from the boss. He understood that he could lead by example and model the behaviors he wanted to see.

To make a difference, though, he would need to take a step and develop the habit of working out loud so others would follow, and so he could lead more effectively.

Whether you introduce the practice via HR, via Knowledge Management, or via employee career events, helping even one group to work out loud can make work better. A few groups can form a movement. A few dozen can create an open, generous, connected culture that's good for the organization and all the people in it.

The island of good ideas

Have you ever been in this situation at work? It occurs when a problem exists that many people, including management, can recognize, but it’s not any one person’s job to fix it. For example, it could be a process that spans a few departments, like on-boarding new employees or customers. How would your firm generate ideas and organize themselves to make things better?

Here are two approaches I see that are notable for both how common and how ineffective they are. There is hope, though, that a new approach is becoming more popular.

The captain of the suggestion box

Perhaps the most common method is that a manager with some authority calls for a meeting about the problem. The boss asks for ideas, and people take turns offering suggestions.

Like the suggestion box, the ideas tend to be individual contributions as people try to demonstrate their own value and intellect. Also, it’s clear that the only person in the room who has the power to do anything with the suggestions is the manager who called the meeting.

Even worse than suggestions in a box, the meeting takes up much more time and very little is written down. After the meeting, there’s no way to build on or connect the ideas, and nothing changes other than attendees growing a bit more cynical.

The stranded crew

A better way, you might think, is that people are empowered to offer suggestions and connect with each other without the need for a boss or a meeting. And in my experience with enterprise social networks, that is both possible and often better.

Leveraging a social network at work makes it easy to surface a broader range of ideas from a much wider audience than any meeting. Since the work is online, it’s also easy to connect people and ideas and to refine proposals.

But, for most problems, the wisdom of crowds is still not enough. Crowds are good at certain tasks (like estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar), but they’re not good at making decisions, particularly when resources are still controlled by managers who aren’t part of the crowd.

Of course, open access to information is good. So is easily contributing and building on knowledge, and connecting people and ideas. They’re all necessary but often not sufficient to get new things done.

How good ideas get implemented

The nautical theme of this post was inspired by a line from Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From.

“New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos.”

What he meant was that new ideas, like those for solving a process problem at work, typically don’t come from people working in isolation. They come from bits and parts contributed by different people, recombined and reconfigured, till the result is an innovation of a kind.

What to do with these good ideas? In his excellent book, Reinventing Organizations. Frederic Laloux describes how evolved organizations increasingly combine the best elements of crowd-based ideation and collaboration (almost all of his examples cite “active internal social networks”) with a new set of communications and decision-making processes.

Laloux describes companies where employees are trained in conflict resolution and nonviolent communication, important skills if the crowd is to avoid becoming a mob. The same companies also implement methods for distributed decision-making and resource allocation, so the crowd is genuinely empowered to act and doesn’t have to wait for a captain to decide.

The next time you see a problem at your firm, think about which approach you use to make work better. How’s it working? What happens to your good ideas?

Photo credit: Don Bayley, Getty Images