Simon Terry

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Transitioning Between the Inner and Outer Loop

At Microsoft Ignite in September, Microsoft unveiled the logic underpinning its collaboration suite: the Inner & Outer Loop.  In this model, Microsoft Teams is for high-velocity communications with direct teams members and Yammer is a platform to connect with people across the organisation. The model explicitly called out there was a role for Sharepoint underpinning these two platforms and email as a channel of targeted communication.

The model resonated strongly with people at Microsoft Ignite because it reflects users different work patterns.  At the time, I quoted George Box that “all models are wrong but some are useful” and noted that for many at the conference the two loops model brought clarity in what had been an overlapping and complex suite of solutions often with little sense of how they worked together.  Since the conference, this new clarity of positioning has driven Microsoft’s product development & marketing activities for Yammer and Teams and even how the two products interrelate. The Inner and Outer loop has been shaping the future for the Microsoft Modern Workplace suite.  At the same time, people have focused on arguing about the model, reinterpreting the model, elaborating it or improving on it (Encouragement for the ‘what tool when’ crowd to redesign their many infographics).

Transition: Working Out Loud in Both Loops

One thing struck me when I considered the idea of Inner and Outer Loops: nobody works in only one loop. All our work involves a continuous process of transition between an Inner Loop of focused execution and an Outer Loop of learning, collaboration and discovery. The Loops are not places or tools. The Loops are patterns of our interaction around our work. Those patterns are ever-shifting based on our work needs. After a decade working on the adoption of social technology one thing is clear to me, we need to spend more time focused on the right ways to help users transition to more effective ways of working.

Working out loud can play an important part in aiding users to see the need to change their work.  Working Out Loud can occur in both loops. Working out loud also helps the process of transition to improve the effectiveness of work. We work out loud in the inner loop to enable our immediate team to self-organise, be better aware of status and be more agile.  We work out loud in the outer loop to benefit from serendipity, learning and discovery. One of the benefits of working out loud is that when we share our work openly other people can prompt us to open up further to the Outer Loop or coach us on the need to be more focused.



If we are always in transition between the two loops then what I thought was missing was an examination of that phase where people make a change in their way of working from one mode to the other. People don’t need to know ‘what to do where’ so much as they need to know when their current mode of work is ineffective. If we consider all the work that is thoughtlessly done as closed targeted communications in email, we quickly see the problem is not a problem of email as a tool.  The problem is that people do not consider when they might need to change their way of working. When twigged to the need to change their approach to work or the tool that they use most people find ways to make that change work for them and their goals. The transition from one style of work to another is our opportunity to enrich and expand the understanding of value of collaborative work. This transition is the key moment in user adoption. It is also an opportunity to ensure we focus on the user behaviour in work, not the technology.

The transition phase between Inner and Outer Loops is also a reminder to all the enthusiastic and passionate advocates of particular collaboration platforms that transition is continuously happening and that tools like Yammer and Teams are ‘better together‘. There is value in exploring the complementary use of both tools. The better we are able to explain to users the value of a way of working and when we transition to another mode of working the better we will support their work. That goal is far more important to individuals and organisations than advocacy or adoption of a platform.

Focus on the User

For fear of taking a simple, easy-to-understand idea and making it so complex as to be useless, I thought it was worthwhile to tabulate characteristics of the user behaviour at work in the three modes: inner loop, outer loop and the moments where we transition.  Each mode of work meets different needs and is better suited to different challenges.  In the spirit of working out loud, here’s a first table which looks at the domains under a number of different user behaviour lenses. I have also included in the table common questions that might be asked in each of these phases as the work progresses:



Triggering Transition

A focus on this moment of change in the pattern of work raises the following important questions:

  • what is it that prompts a user to look for a different way of working?
  • how might we coach ourselves to transition effectively?

If we look at both the Inner and Outer Loop we can see some signs of stress when these modes are used in the wrong ways for work.  The table below highlights some of these stresses and also some questions that leaders and team members can use to query whether it is time for a transition to a different mode of work:



Transition Into the Future

When you consider the first table above, you see that the items listed in Transition can occur in both the Inner or the Outer loop.  These transition items are why you see enthusiastic supporters of one product or the other pushing across the divide. The Transition is also a realm where the two Product Marketing teams need to collaborate as competition will risk devaluing both products with further duplication and confusion over time.  We will leave aside for the moment that you can expand Teams to manage a whole small organisation an InnerOuter Loop or run a daily team transparently in Yammer, the OuterInner Loop.

Bringing the Transition into focus also aligns the Inner and Outer Loop model into alignment with a model that Harold Jarche has been advocating for some time that draws an explicit distinction between Collaboration in teams, Communities of Practice and Cooperation in Networked Communities. The value of this connection is that Harold Jarche has developed extensive materials on his blog and in his books on the 3 different domains and patterns of work.



For example, Harold has explored the use of this model in Innovation at Work and even the connection to the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration that I have discussed at length here.  A growing maturity of work across the four stages of the Value Maturity model comes as people are better able to handle the transition from connecting with an immediate team through to exploring innovation in the widest context. Mastery comes when people can hold all four stages at once around their personal work challenges and freely transition between the Inner and Outer Loop to Connect>Share>Solve>Innovate for greater value.

In future blog posts, we will explore other dimensions of the user behaviour of the Inner Loop, Outer Loop and Transition process.  Examples of these issues include the nature of the networks involved, the leadership styles and the time periods involved:



Begin and End with User Behaviour

The focus on transition between the Inner and Outer Loop is also a reminder that for all the technology and all the powerful models what matters most is influencing new user behaviour. To do this effectively we must begin and end our work in change and adoption with a focus on what work users need to do now and what work we want them to be able to achieve in the future.  Tools alone merely enable new interactions.  The way people work requires them to make sense of new opportunities and to manage the change to new ways of working.

We must keep in the centre of consideration that these tools aren’t tools, media or technology we use for its own sake. These are tools of work interactions. Those human work interactions involve all the complexity of our human relationships with their questions of cultural expectations, trust, understanding and community. Our focus on the Inner and Outer Circle must keep the needs of these interactions at the centre of our new ways of working. The deeper we dive into how users can better leverage these tools to create new meaningful interactions, the richer the value we will create for both the users and the organisations of the future.

This is post is shared in the spirit of working out loud to gain feedback & start a discussion of the application of Inner and Outer Loops from a user behaviour, rather than a technology platform perspective. I would appreciate your thoughts and comments.  My thanks to Steve Nguyen & Angus Florance of the Yammer team for their suggestions on how to turn the initial idea into something of more value to users and community managers.


  1. llocklee says:

    Like a group version of Daniel Kahneman’s thinking fast and slow…

  2. […] a recent post exploring the role of transition between the inner and outer circles, I highlighted that transition was the zone where users sought learning and feedback to help their […]

  3. Luz Rodrigo says:

    Hi, I find it is a really interesting discussion! The inner, the outer loops and particularly the transition between them. You write: “Working out loud also helps the process of transition to improve the effectiveness of work. We work out loud in the inner loop to enable our immediate team to self-organise, be better aware of status and be more agile. We work out loud in the outer loop to benefit from serendipity, learning and discovery”. And that is true. But I have been reflecting on this statement recently, because as a change agent I would like to have a clear answer when asked: With what should we start off? The inner loop (that is Slack or Teams)? Or the outer loop (that is Workplace or Yammer)? It may seem counterintuitive, but in my experience it is easier to get started with the outer loops. People are more prone to accept that they cannot manage communities of practise with the old tools and behaviours and, in this context, they tend to be less pressed by time and more willing to try new things and be “in the beta mode”. But they tend to stick to their old habits (for instance, inefficient email and file exchanges) when they focus on execution, that is to say, when they are in the inner loop and in a hurry. What do you think? In your understanding, does it make a difference?

  4. Pete Wilson says:

    Thanks Simon for overcoming the fear of simple to complex. I found the user behaviours and stresses really useful from a change management perspective because it gives you something to focus readiness/resistance analysis, response and measurement on. The conversation becomes real and specific.

    Understanding human motivation/behaviour will be a great next step as foreshadowed because we must be able to leverage what we know about people and what the neuroscientists are telling us about our brain function to nudge behaviour.

    Another great thing about understanding what doors are open and what might make someone walk through them, is understanding opportunity and being ready to introduce that at the right time. Ever been renovating using the tools you know and someone else shows you a better tool or a faster way?

  5. […] struck me was the alignment to the Inner and Outer Circles of work that are at the heart of Microsoft’s Collaboration product str…  The Inner Circle in the Microsoft version is the environment of speed and empowered execution. […]

  6. […] colleague Simon Terry has written a terrific post that’s bridging this gap between a conversation about tools and one about how we should work. […]

  7. […] of the areas for further discussion I called out in the post on the role of Transition in Inner and Outer Loops was the area of leadership. It is important to note that leadership in this context includes […]

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