A lifeboat in a sea of change

At the beginning of this year, I got a note from a woman whose department was undergoing a “transformation.” It’s a word I come across in every company I visit. While most people I meet may recognize the need for some kind of change, almost no one likes the process, or the uncertainty that comes with it. 

She wrote to say that she was in Week 6 of a Working Out Loud Circle, and that her “WOL family gave her stability." Despite anxiety related to the transformation, she was getting new energy from her network each day while she made progress toward her goal.

I wrote back:

“There are many times when I worked in a big company when my network was like "a lifeboat in a sea of change" (a good title for a blog post :-)) 
At first it was just a relief to interact with nice people at the firm amidst the fear and defensiveness that came along with "transformation." Over time, it came to be a source of ideas and ultimately a new career.”

A Circle offers you a safe, confidential space where you can work on your goals and your development without worrying about judgment or competition. For me, the relationships I developed turned out to be a source of strength in addition to a source of ideas and feedback. They gave me the perspective to see things clearly, and the confidence and encouragement to take action.

If you’re facing a change in your work or life, do you have a lifeboat? Who’s in it?

A lifeboat in a sea of change.jpg

Happy New Year! Announcing WOL Circle Guides v4.5 

In a New Year’s post five years ago, I wrote that one of the best resolutions you could make is to invest in yourself, to give yourself the time and the space - the permission - to develop relationships and skills that matter.  

Since then, I’ve been developing Working Out Loud Circles as a method for doing that, and Circles have spread to over 40 countries. Today, I’m publishing a new and improved version of the WOL Circle Guides to make the method even easier and more effective. 

What’s new?

Thanks to the feedback from people who have already been in a Circle, I’ve been able to refine the guides and make this version the best one so far.  The biggest changes include moving the exercises related to habit development earlier in the process, providing better examples, and updating several of the exercises and additional reading. There are also improvements to the flow, the writing, and the formatting. 

Despite the changes, Circles already in progress should be able to use the new guides right away. Also, a German translation should be ready over the next few weeks.

Customizing WOL Circles for your organization

The WOL Circle Guides are free, and are issued under a license called the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.  (It means you can use the material and share it as-is, but you can’t change it or offer it as part of any for-fee product or service without explicit written permission.) Being free makes it easy for individuals and organizations to experiment and experience the benefits for themselves. Yet as Circles spread in an organization, or as the method is integrated into existing programs like on-boarding and talent development, many organizations want to tailor the guides.

Now there’s an additional license, available for a fixed fee, that allows you to do this. In the past year, I've worked with customers who want to include their own goals, technology, examples, and brand into the guides. So if, say, you’re using WOL Circles to help new joiners be more connected and productive, custom guides can make it easy for those new employees to learn your digital tools while they discover people and content related to their job. If you’re interested in customizing the guides, contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com.

Other ways to make it easier

In addition to upgrading the Circle Guides, I’m working on a WOL Video Coaching Series and Circle Journal that will be available in the coming months. The video series gives you convenient access to all that’s in the guides plus coaching tips to help ensure you make progress. The Journal gives you a single place to do the exercises and capture your learning throughout the process, making it easier to reflect on how far you’ve come.

I welcome and appreciate your feedback on any of these materials and ideas, and will use it to keep improving the method. I hope you join a Circle this year. Here’s some gentle encouragement from another New Year's resolution post I wrote two years ago called “This Year I Will…”

“One way to make a difference this year is to form a Working Out Loud Circle. I’m getting more and more mail from people about how their Circle empowered them, liberated them. Just this week, a woman told me her circle "had an enormous impact on my life.”
Yet it’s such a simple process. You write down a goal, share it with a small trusted group, and take a few steps over 12 weeks to build relationships with people who can help you.
Deciding to form a Circle might just be the best New Year’s resolution you ever made. What’s holding you back that you might be able to change?
Where might you go?"
Happy 2018.jpg

A different kind of graduation present

It's graduation season now. Young people all over the world are leaving university and embarking on their next adventure. Many of them will be joining new companies and will take their place in a graduate training program.

What would be the best thing you could give them? Money? Nice things? What if you gave them a skill they could use now and forever? One that could make their work and life better?

When I left college, there were just a small number of well-worn career paths. Now it seems there’s an infinite number of trails in ever-changing terrain. The wonderful book Designing Your Life makes the point that we no longer have a map for our career (if we ever did) but just a general direction, and we have to “build our way forward.” The way to do that is by building relationships with people and learning from them, leveraging their experience to refine our own sense of what we like and what’s possible.

The first pilot of WOL Circles for a graduate training program is starting in a few weeks, enabling each of the participants to have a global network inside and outside the company in just 12 weeks. The company that sponsored it wanted to give their new employees something besides a job. They wanted to give them control over their career and access to more possibilities, more chances for meaning and fulfillment.

That’s a wonderful gift. 

Neu WOL Circle Leitfaden! (Latest Circle Guides now in German!)

Thanks to the heroic efforts of Katharina Krentz and Monika Struzek at Bosch, the Working Out Loud Circle Guides are now available in German

Many of my German friends pride themselves on being “direct.” So I was particularly pleased when Katha told me “These are the best guides ever! We love them!!!” In this upgrade, I improved the flow, completely reworked some of the later weeks, and included more exercises and resources. They are simpler, clearer, and more complete.

The new WOL Circle Guides will be the basis for a workbook and a video coaching series later this year. If you’re interested in those, subscribe to the blog and you'll be notified of when they’re available. (Or send me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com if you have ideas or comments.)

Of course, you are the best judge of whether these Circle Guides are effective. Try them, and let me know what you think. What did you like best? What could be improved?

Thank you for using these guides and for any and all comments. And a heartfelt “Vielen Dank” to Katha and Monika. Your contributions and support, and those of the entire co-creation team at Bosch, have inspired me to be and do more. 

An early WOL Circle #selfie. (There are now well over 100 WOL Circles at Bosch.)

An early WOL Circle #selfie. (There are now well over 100 WOL Circles at Bosch.)

New! WOL Circle Guides v4.0 available

If you’re considering forming a Working Out Loud Circle, or just interested in Working Out Loud yourself, a new set of the free WOL Circle Guides are now available. (Scroll down till you see v4.0.)

These are the clearest and most complete guides ever. I improved the flow, completely reworked some of the later weeks, and included more exercises and resources. But I almost didn’t publish them.


I was failing to take my own medicine. As much as I encourage people to make their work visible, I was struggling to finish the new guides. I came up with the usual excuses, and months went by.

They’re not good enough yet. 

What if people don’t like them?

I should wait until…

The key to progress was asking for help from the WOL Community on Facebook. That led to an event yesterday where a few dozen people from around the world walked through the material. The event forced me to publish the drafts, and the comments on the call will make the final version even better.

What’s next?

Though the new version isn’t final, it’s ready to use now and I recommend it if you’re about to start a WOL Circle or are in the early stages of one. I’ll incorporate any feedback you have into a new update in early April. Going forward, I anticipate a major upgrade each year and minor changes throughout the year.

The new guides will be the basis for a workbook and a video coaching series later this year. If you’re interested in those, subscribe to the blog and you'll be notified of when they’re available. (Or send me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com if you have suggestions.)

I hope the new guides, workbooks, and videos can help even more people. Though there isn’t any marketing of WOL Circles, they’re in over 20 countries and a wide range of organizations. That’s solely because of people like you who read this blog and spread the word, or who “put the cape on” and decided to try something different in their company.

Thank you.

A better way to welcome people to your organization

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to join a new organization, particularly a large one spread across locations. Don’t worry if it’s been a while since you started a new job. Things haven’t changed that much.

You go through an orientation process, largely about rules, tools, and values. You get access and accounts, a desk. You meet the people on your team and a few others sitting around you. 

Then, over a period of many years, you slowly build your network and learn how to navigate the organization. The more connected you become, the easier it is to find who and what you need to get things done. The richer your network, the more valuable you are to the organization. 

Here’s a way to significantly speed up this process.

Day 1

As part of the orientation process, you form people into Working Out Loud Circles, peer support groups of 4-5 people. They can be in different locations or different divisions, depending on your process and on the kind of connectivity you’d like to develop.

Normally, in your very first meeting, you start by picking a goal and listing people related to that goal. These Circles for new joiners will be even simpler, since each person already has a goal of getting to know people in their new organization. To make it easy for them, you provide a curated list of relationships that would be helpful for them given their particular job. This list will include relevant groups and influencers, as well as management.

Over the coming 12 weeks, each Circle will follow simple steps in the Circle Guides customized to include your organization’s examples and technology. So the exercises each week will refer to specific people and specific channels, making it straightforward to start building meaningful relationships at work.

Day 10

By the second meeting, the Circle members have already bonded as a group. They’re all going through the same process together, helping each other, and they feel it’s safe and confidential. It’s rare that anyone at work has a trusted mentor, so being part of a trusted group of peers can be quite powerful.

Together, they're already making small contributions to people in their relationship lists. It might be as simple as offering recognition by pressing a Follow button on the intranet. Or they might offer appreciation with a comment thanking someone for work they’ve done or a resource they’ve shared. They’re using a range of tools, not for the sake of digital transformation but to build relationships that matter.

After the second meeting, their network is already bigger than it would have been using a traditional on-boarding process. 

Day 100

Week after week, following the steps the Circle process, the group continues to do a wider range of things in the service of building relationships. They’re joining communities, asking questions, helping other new joiners, finding and sharing useful resources. 

While they further expand their network and deepen relationships with the people in it, they are developing a new mindset and new set of habits: working in an open, collaborative way. 

By their last meeting, they're able to Work Out Loud towards any goal. That’s a capability recently described as “perhaps the most fundamental digital workplace skill.” For their next project or problem, whatever it is, they’ll be able to find people that can help them and build relationships so they’re more likely to collaborate.

The results

When you welcome employees this way, you increase engagement and connectivity, and you reduce the time it takes to be productive. Instead of learning from binders in classrooms, new joiners learn by doing and collaborating in peer support groups.

Now imagine if all your new joiners, in their first few months, developed the habit of working in a more agile, visible, networked way. Imagine the positive change in your culture, the improved effectiveness of your people, and the greater return on your technology investments.

When you change how you welcome people to your organization, you have the chance to create sustainable change that feels good. But only if you imagine a better way, and take a step.

Leveraging the 1% rule

While more organizations are investing in digital tools so people can collaborate, most of them find themselves confronting the same obstacle: participation inequality. 

If you’re a member of an online community, you’re already seen this. The term was introduced in 2006 by the Nielsen Norman group, known for their work on intranet design and usability, in an article titled, “The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities.” It’s often generalized to “the 1% rule.” 

“In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.”

So what do you do if your organization is spending money on tools for people to collaborate, and yet so few people are contributing?

Attempting to change the rule

There is a lot of good advice on driving adoption of new tools. I’ve even written some myself

For example, you might focus on training, so people know how to use the tools. Or you could start with processes, so use of the new tools is embedded in the work people are doing. You may even focus on a new class of professionals, community managers, whose role is to encourage online participation. 

All of these are good ideas. In practice, though, they don’t seem to be enough to help organizations realize the potential of collaborative technologies.

What if, instead of trying to get everyone to participate, you focused on helping 1% participate in a way that was more effective? In a way that could spread more readily?

A different approach

You can do this by spreading Working Out Loud Circles, the peer support groups in which individuals choose a goal and deepen relationships with people related to that goal. (There’s a variation of this process for shared goals, teams, and leaders too.) 

The Circle Guides help individuals use the tools in ways that are intrinsically appealing, ways that more clearly answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

When I work with organizations, we customize the public guides so they are specific to the organization’s goals, culture, and technology. We use their examples in the exercises, highlighting different ways to contribute ideas, issues, and improvements.

The Circles are still confidential, and they’re still designed to tap into each person’s sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It’s just that the customized guides make it easy for individuals to know what to do and to feel positive about doing it

The Circle Guides essentially encode collaborative behaviors into a self-directed social learning process. The Circle members’ personal experiences, as survey results show, help them see these behaviors as good for them and good for the organization. The personal fulfillment they experience, plus the repeated practice in the Circle, help the new behaviors become habitual.

When 1% of your organization Works Out Loud

“Good for them,” you might say. “But what about everyone else who isn’t in a Circle?”

This is where the leverage comes in. 

By equipping your 1% with the set of specific collaborative behaviors in the Circle Guides, you’re making those behaviors visible. Rather than just hoping for meaningful contributions, you’ve helped people make them in a systematic way. 

Those contributions - sharing work that can be helpful to others -  are what the other 99% will be seeing. That social proof will help other people know what to do, and motivate yet more people to join circles, so the 1% becomes 2%, then 3%. (One company approaching their 100th Circle observed how Circle participants were using their social intranet: “Many of them we hadn’t seen before.”)

Because of participation inequality, even 1% of your company working in an open, networked way can make a difference in your company’s culture, and can unlock more connections, contributions, and collaboration from the rest.

How to choose a goal for your Working Out Loud Circle

The first thing you do when you join a Working Out Loud Circle is to choose a goal. Yet for many people, that can be a challenge. Should my goal be big or small? A work goal or a personal goal? Can I have more than one?

So I want to make that first step easier. 

In two weeks, when we begin a 6-week Working Out Loud course that has you experience a circle and get live coaching along the way, I’ll help each of the participants pick a goal that will make it easier to get great results.

I’ll use these four simple questions as a guide.

1. “Do you care about it?”

Change can be difficult, so you want to tap into your intrinsic motivators as much as you can. They include autonomy, mastery, and purpose - your need for control, for a sense of getting better at something, and for connection to others or to something bigger than yourself. 

When you think of your goal, pay attention to how you feel. If you don’t care about it now, then you won’t care enough to do the exercises and attend your circle meetings, so choose something else.

Choosing a goal you genuinely care about will make it easier to develop the habit and mindset of Working Out Loud. Then you can apply those to any goal. 

2. “Can you make progress towards it in 12 weeks?”

Ambition can be good, though typically not when you’re trying to change your habits. (Consider how many New Year’s Resolutions are broken in January.) 

If your goal is too ambitious, merely thinking of it can tend to paralyze you, and progress towards it will be too slow to notice during the time you’re in your peer support group. So, given the limited time you’ll be in a circle, try to pick something that feels more achievable. 

3. “Is it something other people can help you with?”

Deepening relationships is at the heart of Working Out Loud. So you want to select a goal that depends on relationships giving you access to knowledge and opportunities you might not have otherwise.

If your goal seems like something you would accomplish on your own - “I will lose 20 pounds” or “I will get my MBA.” - choose something else or reframe it in a way such that relationships can help you. That brings us to the fourth question.

4. “Can you frame it as a learning or exploration goal?”

This, for me, is the best question. If you can frame what you’re trying to do in terms of learning and exploration, you’ll be more likely to adopt a growth mindset. More likely to try new things. More likely to be open to new people and possibilities. 

Especially in your first circle, consider goals that start with one of these phrases:

“I would like to be better at…”

“I would like to learn more about…”

“I would like to know more people who…”

Framed this way, you’ll more readily tap into your need for mastery and purpose. That will be true whether you want to get better at your job or at a hobby, explore new roles or a new topic, connect with people who can help your career or who share a common interest with you.

In addition to making progress towards your goal, you’ll also be doing something else: developing your sense of self-efficacy. That’s the feeling that you have the ability to improve whatever situation you’re in - to get more out of work and life if you want to. The more you practice Working Out Loud, the stronger that feeling becomes.

Here’s the PDF I’m sending to participants in the course. I hope you find it useful in setting your own goal. If you want more help, the course starts on October 5th, and you can still reserve a seat by sending me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com.



Co-creation with Bosch and Postshift

Over the past six weeks, I’ve been working in a way that’s both unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and yet it has produced better results. 

I thought sharing my recent experience might help you if you ever try something similar. 

The goal

It was June, and I was about to start my first formal engagement with Bosch. I had been collaborating with the team there for about nine months, helping them spread Working Out Loud Circles and learning what worked and didn’t work for them. They had produced remarkable results, and now they were looking to apply Working Out Loud to teams and leaders. 

These innovations would open up new possibilities for spreading the practice. WOL for Teams would require adapting Working Out Loud Circles for groups with shared goals and networks. WOL for Leaders would require different steps, and wouldn’t be circle-based at all. I developed two new sets of guides, and planned for a weeklong trip to Stuttgart. 

Then the Bosch team surprised me and another company, Postshift, by asking us to work together. 

The essential element it requires

From the beginning, I knew that Bosch had been working with Postshift for years in a much broader capacity, helping them with their overall digital transformation. Lee Bryant, a founder of Postshift, is an expert I’ve long respected, and his companies have helped a wide range of companies “create more resilient and adaptable business structures for the 21st Century.”

Think for a moment what your reaction might be. If you were Postshift, you might wonder why there is another person doing work that you might well do, with a client you’ve built a strong relationship with over years. If you’re me, just having started a new company, you might wonder if you’ll be run over by a more established group. Or if your work will stand up to their scrutiny.

And yet there we were, in a conference room, going through WOL for Teams & WOL for Leaders, and preparing for workshops and pilots. 

I was immediately struck by how, instead of starting from a defensive position, anticipating all that could go wrong and wrangling over a contract, we started from a position of trust. That trust was earned by the Bosch team because of all their contributions over time. It was also earned by Lee, who has an excellent reputation and had given me helpful advice on several occasions. 

The results (and embracing uncertainty)

In the room, we worked together as if we had done so many times before. Cerys Hearsay and Lee from Postshift had perspectives on the client and on digital transformation that led to significant improvements to the material I had written. Later in the week, Lee presented at the first-ever Working Out Loud conference, and he put WOL in context with all the other things Bosch was trying to do. His talks throughout the day were insightful and generous. He even blogged about “Working Out Loud for Teams & Leaders” at postshift.com.

The results, unambiguously, were better than what I had done on my own, and Bosch will pilot the new concepts in the Fall. But where will this co-creation experience lead? I’m not certain.

It could lead to more work with Bosch (or not).

It could lead to more collaboration with Postshift (or not).

It could lead to new products and services I could offer to other clients (or not).

For sure, though, I already have new ideas from collaborating closely with experts I respect. I have access to possibilities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. I have learned how I can work with other partners better next time. 

Working with Bosch and Postshift, I experienced how, perhaps more than ever, trust is the currency of collaboration. It’s what makes new forms of experimentation and learning possible. It’s what enables you to preserve relationships even when things don’t work out. It’s what enables you to enjoy the process, and makes it more likely you’ll build on your successes.

Latest Circle Guides translated into German

The newly translated guides are courtesy of Julia Flug. How I came to know Julia, and how these guides came to be, are great examples of why I love what I do.

Our interaction started, as many do, with a tweet:

I replied, asking her what country she was in, and Julia quickly followed up with a generous offer.

We followed each other, exchanged emails, and it turned out she could translate the guides into any one of several languages. (I also learned that, in addition to being a polyglot, Julia is funny and a good writer.) A few short weeks later, she sent me fourteen documents - representing an extraordinary amount of work - along with a lovely note.

“I am happy to send you the translated WOL documents. Thank you very much for trusting in my translation skills!
It was a great, insightful exercise in many aspects. I learned about myself, enjoyed seeing what is all inside the circles, especially how much we all have to give (but never thought about it), the things one might have in common (I'm vegetarian, too! :)) and especially the advice on empathy. Oh, and the exercise on starting a movement. What a fantastic-scary thing!
If you have any question or should see something which is missing or what ever might be - I am just an e-mail away!”

From our emails, I learned Julia works in a company where Working Out Loud is being talked about on their intranet, and I hope we’ll get to work together some day. (The first time the guides were translated, it was by the multi-talented Kathrin Schmidt at Bosch, who I've since come to work with regularly.)

Having visited seven companies in Germany on a recent trip there, it’s excellent timing for new guides in German. Now I want other materials accessible to a German audience too, so I’ll be making the site bi-lingual in the coming months, complete with guest blogs from German speakers. Hopefully Julia and Kathrin will agree to be among them!

p.s. You may have noticed my new avatar on Twitter. That, too, is courtesy of someone's generosity in Germany. Her name is Suse Reiche, and we met at her company in Bonn. You can find more of her artwork, and a bit of philosophy on life, beautifully captured on her new Facebook page, Mia's Lessons,