The best kind of testimonials

A highlight of my day is seeing messages from people who find Working Out Loud helpful in some way.

Here are a few from Twitter. They’re written by people who’ve changed in some way - a heightened sense of empowerment or hope, a new outlook. They write them because they feel more positive and want to share that feeling.

It's beautiful to see. As you spread the practice, you’re helping more people experience this. 

The best “Working Out Loud” talk ever

Alas, it wasn’t given by me. In fact, I’ve never spoken to the person who delivered it. But I do know she produced some dramatic results.

Her name is Vanessa North, and she works in the Australian Tax Office in Adelaide. When she spoke to a group about Working Out Loud, 120% of the audience signed up to join a Working Out Loud circle and put the ideas into practice.

Here’s how it happened.

The original idea

A few weeks ago, I wrote about How Change Spreads and how it can begin with a single person who’s willing to try something different. Vanessa is that kind of person.

She had participated in a Working Out Loud circle and liked it so much she wanted to form more of them at work. By mid-December, she was ready.

“I’ve taken the step and scheduled an information session in the Tax Office in Adelaide for next week. I’m going to use your presentation slides as a starting point and ask people to sign up for a circle in the new year. I have emailed all my internal contacts and networks and will see how I go (there are about 1800 people here in Adelaide).”

The talk

I offered my help but she was already completely prepared. A few days later, I got an update:

“Hi John,
Many thanks for your message.
I ran a WOL intro session with your slide deck and just asked people to come along and find out what WOL was about (using my existing networks in the Adelaide Tax Office and also a couple of people from other government agencies).
46 people came, a few people couldn’t come but still wanted to sign up, and a few heard about it afterwards.
So…. Wait for it…..
Out of 46 people who turned up I have 55 people signed up! So …. Drumroll please……I calculate that as a 120% sign up rate :-)
Here I am giving the presentation:
I have some great colleagues helping to co-ordinate and we are having 11 circles with five people in each circle. 
I’m excited and inspired by the enthusiasm in the groups and how quickly the idea is spreading throughout the office. We have 1800 people in the Adelaide Office so I’m aiming to have them all signed up to a circle by the end of next year.
Thanks so much for sharing your enthusiasm, ideas and resources.
Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you and yours.”

What might happen next

Of course I was please by her results. But I was even more delighted with her lovely note and her aspirational goal of reaching so many people.

When I asked Vanessa if I could blog about her event, she sent the photos below, and we arranged for me to speak with the circles in April to answer questions or just provide encouragement.

What’s next? Perhaps she’ll help 55 people think a bit differently. Or maybe together they'll spread circles and help 1,800 people across the Tax Office in Adelaide develop a new habit and mindset. Or maybe they'll do much, much more.

How Change Spreads

They have different reasons for starting, for taking that first step, but by now, there’s a clear pattern.

Here’s how an organization spreads a set of positive behaviors using Working Out Loud circles.

The first step

It almost always begins with a single person saying “I want to try something different this time.” Maybe they need help with a new program or they’re reacting to failed programs of the past. Maybe they just read the book or blog post and decided the time was right.

The goals they have usually tend to be one of these:

We want people to feel better about working here.

We want people to leverage our digital tools.

We want people to share knowledge.

We want o help people manage their own careers.

We need to help managers be leaders.

We need everyone to be able to work better.

There is almost always a kick-off meeting of some kind where Working Out Loud is presented, perhaps at a town hall or career event or internal conference. Sometimes they’ll contact me and I’ll give a talk. Often times they’ll do it themselves.

After the event, the first circles form.

Making it stick

Using the simple, free guides, the circles can go through the process independently. Working with many organizations, though, I’ve observed a few things that organizers do to help these first circles succeed.

  1. They help circles get past any initial logistical challenges.
  2. They create an internal website for questions and links to resources.
  3. They check in with each circle periodically.
  4. They share success stories.
  5. They schedule an event at Week 5 or 6 to answer common questions.

Again, sometimes it’s just a single person who cares enough to do these things. Quite often, though, others raise their hand and want to contribute. They’ve experienced the benefits themselves and they want to help more people.

Now a small tribe of change agents is beginning to assemble inside the organization. In time, they’ll hold another event to form more circles, and word spreads.

Scaling the change

There are dozens of organizations around the world who have reached this point. They’ve formed circles, have seen the benefits, and are ready to do more. They can keep spreading circles organically, but some want a more systematic approach with consistent results. In those cases, the tribe of change agents approaches HR (or sometimes an executive sponsor of the digital workplace or other transformation) and proposes spreading circles as a formal program.

What’s being tested now is something called an “Accelerated Development Program.” It’s a method for quickly helping 1,000 people in your organization develop the 21st-century skill of working out loud – how to find people who can help you with a goal and build meaningful relationships with them.

The program includes training hundreds of facilitators so the organization has the capability to continue spreading circles, helping more people feel empowered and be more effective at work.

One of the most advanced organizations spreading circles surveyed people who had been in a circle.

91% said it helped them build networks that are more effective and purposeful.

91% said it enriched their daily lives.

97% said they would recommend it

How much would it be worth to your organization to have survey results like these? Think back to the last transformation program or culture program at your firm. How much changed? 

Just imagine a few dozen people developing the habit of working in an open, connected way. Then a few hundred. Then a few thousand. As positive behaviors ripple throughout the organization, it changes how the place feels, how people feel.

It can start with just one person in your organization who says, “I want to try something different this time.”

If that person is you, contact me or leave a comment, and let’s begin.

The Perimeter of Your Potential

He was a medieval scholar, trying to decipher traces of a poem from the Middle Ages. He was looking at the only remaining manuscript, and it was so badly damaged that he was using an ultraviolet lamp to detect the writing. But the document was too burned and faded. Other scholars had already given up.

What he did next is helping to shape our understanding of history. It’s also an example of how small actions you take can expand your knowledge of what’s possible.

The Chess of Love
The Chess of Love

An email that shaped history

Gregory Heyworth is the name of the scholar, and he gave a talk in October on “How I’m discovering the secrets of ancient texts.”

He described what he did when he realized he was stuck:

“And so I did what many people do. I went online, and there I learned about how multispectral imaging had been used to recover two lost treatises of the famed Greek mathematician Archimedes from a 13th-century palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript which has been erased and overwritten.

And so, out of the blue, I decided to write to the lead imaging scientist on the Archimedes palimpsest project, Professor Roger Easton, with a plan and a plea. And to my surprise, he actually wrote back.”

Like a pebble in a pond

The simple set of steps Heyworth took - searching for people who could help him, deciding to reach out, crafting a compelling letter that earned a response - sent out ripples that changed his career.

“With his help, I was able to win a grant from the US government to build a transportable, multispectral imaging lab, And with this lab, I transformed what was a charred and faded mess into a new medieval classic.”

That same lab then went on to “read even the darkest corners of the Dead Sea Scrolls” and make transcriptions from the Codex Vercellensis, a translation of the Christian Gospels from early in the 4th century.

Then he founded the Lazarus Project, a not-for-profit initiative to bring the technology to individual researchers and smaller institutions. That brought him into contact with researchers and precious documents around the world, like the team working on a map from 1491 used by Columbus that was no longer legible.

He took all these facets of his experience and became a professor of a new “hybrid discipline.”

“There's so much of the past, and so few people with the skills to rescue it before these objects disappear forever. That's why I have begun to teach this new hybrid discipline that I call "textual science." Textual science is a marriage of the traditional skills of a literary scholar -- the ability to read old languages and old handwriting, the knowledge of how texts are made in order to be able to place and date them -- with new techniques like imaging science, the chemistry of inks and pigments, computer-aided optical character recognition.”

Expanding the “perimeter of your potential”

In Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, he uses the phrase “the adjacent possible” to describe how, at any point in time, only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. Whether it’s how animals evolve or how technical innovation happens, one given change makes other changes possible. “The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Applying it to you individually, an interviewer described the adjacent possible as “the perimeter of your potential” and that you expand the range of your possible next moves by actively bringing yourself into contact with other people and ideas.

When Gregory Heyworth searched for people who could help him and made a meaningful connection, he expanded his adjacent possible and unlocked access to projects, creating a movement, and even a new field of study, things he could never have imagined beforehand when he considered himself “just a medieval scholar.”

What about you and what you’re trying to accomplish? Are you actively looking for people who could help you and trying to build relationships with them?

It’s what people in Working Out Loud circlesaround the world are doing. Learning to take small steps that can gain them access to more possibilities.

You can shape the perimeter of your potential.

***

If You’re Doing It Right, It Feels Like This

Earlier this week, I met with a Working Out Loud circle in Japan, the first one there. We talked about their goals and the relationships they were building, and about the exercises they had done. As they approached the end of their 12 weeks together, they wanted to know if they had done things right, and what to do next.

Enso

Enso

What success looks like

You’ll know you’ve succeeded in a circle if you’ve changed your mindset in some way and taken some action you wouldn’t have taken otherwise.

For this circle in Japan, success came in different forms. For one person it was paying more attention to goals he cared about and investing time in them. For another it was being more open to connecting with people and to new ideas. Trying to develop his hobby into something more, he is now regularly sharing his work, hosting events, and interacting with master craftsmen in Japan. One person said “It already changed my life.”

We didn’t talk about the number of people in their network or the amount of social media activity. We talked about their goals and steps they were taking toward them, and about how they felt.

The conversation with the circle in Japan is similar to those I’ve had with many other groups. When circles work, people say they feel “like their world is bigger” or that they are “more empowered and encouraged.” A new mindset and new habits is a powerful combination.

When circles don’t work 

Not all circles work this way. Some have trouble just organizing the first meeting, or having everyone show up. Others find the 12 weeks too long, or that an hour a week is too much.

They’re not doing anything wrong. People are busy, and getting a group together can be a challenge. Even if you want to take steps toward a goal you care about, it can feel easier to just keep doing what you’re doing.

Each circle that doesn’t work is an opportunity to learn. So in 2016, we’ll collect these experiences in a more systematic way and use that data to make the circle experience even easier and more effective.

What’s happens after 12 weeks?

One of the questions the group in Japan had was about what to do next. Should they keep going as a circle? Did it make sense to use the same guides again?

I told them I’m on my seventh circle now, and I find that including different people each time helps bring new energy and perspectives to my goal. The structure and shared accountability of the process helps me take the steps I need to take. I described how I use the same guides because sometimes my goal is different and so the entire process applies. Even when my goal is unchanged, I get a chance to practice the different steps and exercises and approach them differently now that I have more experience.

The first circle in Japan did beautifully and experienced a wide range of successes they can now apply to other goals. They agreed that next year they’ll form new circles, helping themselves and others take a next step.

Note: The next post will be on January 6th, 2016. Enjoy the holidays!

Equipping people to make the world a better place

WOL for the planet

WOL for the planet

The first email was from someone in Sierra Leone, and I wondered if it was a mistake. Then a follow-up message came from Tanzania, and now it was clear they had the right guy.

They were interested in working out loud to make the world a better place. And they got my attention.

The notes were from young professionals in a management program at a leading humanitarian organization. It’s a highly selective program, with members located in countries around the world. They work on projects like “confronting the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone” and “defending children’s rights everywhere.” The expectations are high and the stakes are even higher. But it’s difficult work, and they can struggle to find the people and knowledge they need to be effective.

“We have to deliver across our teams at a country level and build networks at a global level…we need to share information, lessons learnt, best practices and communicate across the board — we need to work out loud.“

They need this for their projects as well as for their own careers. “As individuals, these are also skills that we need to master.” So they asked if I would talk with them.

“I am actually hoping that this could be the beginning of a discussion with our organization globally on the WOL concept and its potential for our work.”

I’m hoping for that too, so I said yes right away and sent them electronic copies of the book.

The simple practice of working out loud can help individuals and companies. The greatest benefit would be to equip people in organizations like the one that contacted me, organizations “that have the potential to change the lives of millions,” to help them make the kind of difference they’re aspiring to make.

“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.

“You already made my world bigger”

WOL for the individual

WOL for the individual

She’s a much-beloved piano teacher, and she’s extremely good at what she does. Her playing, too, is extraordinary. And yet, one night as a group of us were talking about work, she said something that surprised me.

“My world is too small.”

She’s so popular that I found it hard to believe. She told us she wanted something more than teaching, that she yearned for interactions with people besides the familiar students and their families.

We talked further and I offered her a copy of Working Out Loud. I thought perhaps she could build relationships with other teachers and feel more connected. I wasn’t sure.

A month later, she was carrying the book with her and it was marked with multi-colored tabs. It turns out she had been wanting to do more original compositions and the book helped her. She did a few simple exercises, started searching for composers, and began interacting with a few of them.

“You already made my world bigger,” she said.

Of course, I hadn’t done anything. She was the one brave enough to take a step. Now we’re in a Working Out Loud circle together, and she’s learning about scoring music for movies and getting in touch with independent film makers.

Individuals work out loud to access a better career and life, whatever “better” means for them. And when you help someone work out loud - a friend, a family member, a colleague - your support can empower them to expect more, to do and be more. For some people, it can set them free and set them in motion. As Seth Godin wrote recently:

“If we can help just one person refuse to accept false limits, we've made a contribution. If we can give people the education, the tools and the access they need to reach their goals, we've made a difference.”

Who will you help? What step will you take toward your own goal?

Why Are So Many German Companies Interested In Working Out Loud?

It doesn’t fit the stereotype, does it? When I speak to German audiences, they’ll tell me that Germans are different. They aren’t into self-promotion, for example, and they tend to be more mindful of the corporate hierarchy. They'll say they're not comfortable asking questions or showing work in progress lest it make them seem less competent. So why would they want to spread the practice of Working Out Loud?

WOL in Germany

WOL in Germany

What the Germans want

What German companies want, it turns out, is what every company wants. They want to be more agile, to learn from mistakes and leverage successes, to spread good ideas and practices more quickly. They feel that having employees who work out loud can help them achieve these things.

What German people want is, despite the cultural differences, similar to what human beings around the world want. They share the universal intrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and they feel working out loud can give them more control over their work and life while increasing their access to learning and their sense of connectedness.

So far, German companies in banking, manufacturing, and telecommunications have started spreading Working Out Loud circles, including interest from HR and Communications departments as well as individuals.

But why is Germany ahead of some other countries?

The way it started 

The explanation has little to do with national proclivities and more to do with a few inspired, committed people. A few individuals had read about working out loud and wanted to learn more. A dozen or so of them from a diverse set of companies decided to meet, and they invited me to join via video.

That meeting was like a pebble in a pond, spreading ripples across companies that brought us all into contact with more possibilities.

First, people at the meeting formed circles among themselves. (My friend Barbara, who’s featured in Working Out Loud, was one of those people and recently wrote about the experience in both German and English.) The circles spanned companies, and some individuals then decided to spread circles at their firm.

One of the companies was Bosch, a firm that's among the most-respected global manufacturers and, with 300,000 people, the world’s largest private firm. Katharina Pershke, Cornelia Heinke, and the Bosch team adapted all the Working Out Loud materials for use on their intranet and started spreading circles. Kathrin Schmidt heroically translated all the guides into German.

A few months later, I was heading to Stuttgart for a conference, and the team invited me to speak at their firm. We held events for hundreds of people, even broadcasting an event to other countries, and that led to more circles and more ideas.

An exciting and inspiring #wol day comes to an end. Thanks to everybody #wolbosch@johnstepper@HeinkeCorneliapic.twitter.com/JwZ35rskJ5

— Katharina Perschke (@Katha_Pe) November 4, 2015

What’s next?

The ripples kept on spreading. The Bosch team talked with people at other companies in Germany, sharing the materials and their learning. That led to more connections and more opportunities to collaborate on spreading working out loud. It also led to ideas for different ways to apply Working Out Loud and ways to measure benefits for both the individual and the firm.

It’s still early, of course, but the German companies interested in spreading Working Out Loud collectively employ over a million people.

It shows how a few committed, passionate people inside companies can start a movement - and can make a difference far beyond what most of us might dare to imagine.

If You Have a Knowledge Management Strategy, It’s Probably Missing This

When Xerox was interested in learning how copier repair technicians got work done, they hired an ethnographer who, like the Margaret Mead of office workers, lived among his subjects to study their ways. What he found was remarkable, in part because he did it more than 30 years ago, and in part because we’re still struggling to know what to do with his findings.

“Two-way radios”

Fixing copiers in the 1980s was no easy task. Machines were idiosyncratic, and diagnosing the cause of a particular failure could take a long time. Often, the answers simply weren’t in the manual. So Xerox sent in Julian Orr, an ethnographer, to work with the technicians and see what they actually did.

He wrote about what he found in Talking About Machines:

“Narrative forms a primary element of this practice…The circulation of stories among the community of technicians is the principal means by which the technicians stay informed of the developing subtleties of machine behavior in the field.”

Talking About Work

Talking About Work

He kept seeing how technicians would find ways to meet and share their experiences over coffee or a meal. When management asked, “How can we leverage this naturally occurring learning?” the solution at the time was to give technicians two-way radios so they could ask questions and share stories more readily.

It helped, but the limits were obvious. “The audience was limited to the half-dozen people in their home office,” and none of the knowledge was written down so it couldn't be found or built on later.

“The big challenge was the work practice and motivation…”

So, nearly 15 years later, they introduced a knowledge management system called Eureka to capture this knowledge. It was a major improvement over radios, but getting people to use it was a problem. The director of corporate strategies described it this way:

"The big challenge [in KM] was the work practice and the motivation elements…we still couldn’t figure out how to get engineers to take the time to input the data," he recalled.

Technicians were busy, and contributing to Eureka seemed like an extra thing to do in the little downtime available to them. They tried different design changes and incentive systems, and then they made a change that made a difference: “an ability to ‘author' their solutions.”

"Once we enabled them to attach their name, it became a professional peer process. They’re proud of their solutions and are recognized for it.”

A complement to the best KM practices

Some firms have their own modern equivalents of Eureka, along with processes for systematically capturing knowledge. Yet even those firms firms are still using the equivalent of two-way radios for much of their collective knowledge, the bulk of which is in email (“where knowledge goes to die”) or in people’s heads.

The KM Iceberg

The KM Iceberg

That’s one reason why a growing number of firms are looking to spread the practice of Working Out Loud. Whereas Xerox technicians got “professional credit” for authoring something, people who work out loud tap into even greater intrinsic motivations. Since the emphasis is on deepening relationships and not just sharing, people who work out loud tap into autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Their growing network makes them feel more connected while giving them more control over their learning and access to opportunities.

It's easier now, too. Making work visible has become dramatically simpler with enterprise social networks like Jive, Yammer, and IBM connections. And Working Out Loud circles help employees develop the habit so it becomes a natural part of the day and not yet another task.

If your firm has a KM program, does it capture all the knowledge you need? And if the bulk of your knowledge is in email, shouldn’t you start helping employees find ways to share it that are better for the individual and better for the firm?