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Working out loud can sometimes seem quite abstract. The benefits can seem a little obscure. Here’s a little story of how purposefully sharing your work in progress can create a great experience that makes work easier and more effective.
A Story of Working Out Loud Outside
I interact a lot with the Customer Success Team for Microsoft Office. We are both trying to help clients to find the best ways to implement Office capability. These situations can vary from client to client because each one has a different strategy, a different culture and a different plan. There’s always something new to learn and a new problem to solve.
Today as I travelled to work, I got an external Yammer post from Avi Sujeeth, a Microsoft Customer Success Manager in the US. I’ve known Avi for a while through online interactions only. Avi was in discussion with some of his colleagues around an issue about organisational structures for IT teams that he needed to solve for a client. Avi had previously seen a post I had written on the same topic in the Microsoft Tech Community.
By @mentioning me into that thread in Microsoft’s Yammer Community, I was able to join into that thread of conversation between the Microsoft team from around the world. The thread appeared as a notification in my inbox in my ChangeAgentsWorldwide Yammer. I answered the question to the best of my abilities. Over the next 30 minutes, in and around other tasks I was doing, we had a quick back and forth to clarify some issues. I went on with my day in Melbourne.
Breaking Down the Benefits
When I next checked Yammer, I saw a new notification of a follow-up message in the thread from Avi pointing out the power of what just happened. Included in that post was the following quote (shared with permission)
I had no idea where this conversation was going to go. I don’t have Simon’s email. I did it all in about 30 minutes because of async communication. Work Out Loud rules.
There’s little reason to believe that I could have contributed to solving a problem for Avi if he hadn’t his work in progress, based on a mutual understanding from a history of sharing our work. I don’t have Avi’s email. I didn’t know he was based in Texas until I looked up his LinkedIn profile to include it above. I don’t have a clue what he is doing other than what he shared with me. He was on a deadline that I didn’t discover until the last post. The ease and the curiosity with which Avi could share that challenge with me made it incredibly easy for me to quickly understand the issue and reply to the best of my ability. The whole interaction took less than 10 minutes of my time.
Importantly, Avi wasn’t sure what he might get from his question to me. Avi took a risk putting the message out there. I could have been in a workshop or on a plane. I might not have had anything of value to say (I’m still not sure that I did). There’s some comfort that he probably got better answers to his question to me from his peers while I took my time responding. Having shared a work challenge out loud his colleagues could all jump in to the conversation too.
Would Avi have got the same answer asking me publicly or privately on Twitter or Linkedin? Maybe, but then he may not have got the participation of his colleagues and I wouldn’t have had the same sense of engaging in a team response to a problem. Being part of a purposeful team is highly engaging, even if it is just a single thread. Because this was one thread with many other people from organisation I know well, I knew I could trust the team and I felt safe to share my thoughts and get feedback – the dynamics of responding were better and a better solution resulted.
Working out loud is a powerful tool for solving work problems because when people share work in progress purposefully with relevant communities. Examples like these are what we need to achieve to move the conversation in collaboration from sharing to solving work problems. Once people work out loud consistently organisations and individuals see benefits quickly further driving collaboration internally and externally.
PS:A short comment on external collaboration features:
Many organisations turn off external messaging and external groups in Yammer because they don’t understand the experience or have fears of security or data sharing breaches. This example of an agile and fluid form of external collaboration is a what is lost in that decision. Avi could have got my email from a colleague and emailed me but it would have been the same information, just slower and less engaging. More and more organisations need to work not just across silos, but across organisational boundaries in rapid collaborative teams.
This morning’s #esnchat led by my Change Agents Worldwide colleague and change management expert, Jennifer Frahm involved a vibrant discussion about how to launch an ESN quickly. A strong theme of the discussion was that collaboration takes time to build and you should take care not to rush that development. The Value Maturity Model above is founded in the growing sense-making and culture change in a community that surrounds that community’s embrace of new ways of working.
Launch Quickly. Succeed Slowly
In part the question is not the real issue. Launching a social collaboration solution of any kind is not the problem. Launches can be put together in days or weeks depending on your passion for chaos. Send some communications, enable the network, have a fancy launch event and you are done. Launch is complete.
However, a successful launch, even with a high level of engagement, is not the point of collaboration in your organisation (this article was pre-reading for the #ESNChat discussion). Your organisation and your employees work to create business value. Until your collaboration platform is sustainably creating that level of business value your job is not done. The Value Maturity Model describes some of the key steps to that growing maturity over time.
What if you don’t have the time?
We don’t always have the stakeholder support to take time. Many organisations want or need to get going quickly. Launch dates become fixed in the calendar before organisations understand why they are seeking to launch a collaboration platform. The key issue in my experience is that the same organisations who want to go quickly are usually those who think that going fast will make their collaboration network cheaper to launch and run.
The value of a purposeful, strategic & vibrant collaboration community is that it becomes self-managing. The community begins to develop the value and the engagement that drives its own future success and growth. The community becomes the example to all new users as to ‘what we do here, how we do it and why’. Over time that self-managing, self-promoting and self-correcting characteristic of successful collaboration platforms is what reduces their cost to operate and accelerates their value creation.
Setting up a community to become purposeful, strategic and vibrant takes time and money. If you want to do that quickly, it will cost you more money up front in the planning, leadership and communication, not less. You will also need to invest more money over the life of the community to manage the higher risks of failure and to sustain the community after launch until it becomes self-sustaining.
Community managers often bemoan the continued focus of business leaders on the costs of their work. Many organisations seek to continuously cut budgets and resources for community management over time. Let’s be clear that organisations decrease investment when they lose confidence in the returns from an activity. Community managers are the agents and architects of strategic value in collaboration. They need to embrace the challenge and justify their ongoing investment in their growing returns.
Given there are many platforms in the market that promise fast engagement (& with good evidence to support it), the issue is not how quickly you engage in use of the platform. The key challenge for any user and any organisation is how quickly their use of a platform becomes a self-sustaining contributor to the fulfilment of purpose and sustained value creation. When clients ask me why the investment in developing their community using the Value Maturity Model is required, my answer is that they can skip the work, but they risk skipping the value. The value of a clear strategy and an effective approach is that it accelerates the value of strategic collaboration. If you want to go fast, you need to plan for more costs, now and later.
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:
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.
A Friday Feature on the Microsoft Tech Community where I talk about Yammer, collaboration and community for organisations grappling with digital transformation.
In business, we are used to making priority calls. We can’t do everything. It always feels like we are up against a hard choice between A OR B. Limited resources must be carefully allocated. When it comes to collaboration in a community, this attitude can get in the way of inclusion. A community can embrace AND using the diversity, contributions, and engagement of all participants. A community doesn’t have to choose OR, it can choose AND. The generative potential of a diverse network is one of the key benefits of collaborative communities. Don’t squash that for a false choice.
The Limits Don’t Apply
The traditional decision-making constraints of business are all driven by a flow of resources, decisions, and priorities from the top of the hierarchy down. When allocation is the principal business challenge then we must make either/or choices.
The resources owned by the hierarchy are limited because the flow of information is limited. The hierarchy must manage with limited information of the circumstances of the business, surpluses and shortages in the plan and often a generic understanding of the processes, roles and human capabilities in the network. Hierarchies narrow choices and standardise options to make the complexity of the network easier to manage. In traditional businesses which sought to scale proven processes, the costs of this approach in loss of information, flexibility and potential were overwhelmed by the scale advantages of standardised execution.
The networks of a collaborative community have the ability to manage a wirearchy, Jon Husband’s concept of ‘a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology’. Standardise models, limited information and simple either/or choices can be exchanged for the information of the people on the spot, the capabilities of the individual and the needs of the business and its customers. The wirearchy can also pull from beyond the organisational resources extending its reach beyond the organisational boundary to pull in information, resources and people needed to manage delivery.
The fast-moving digital economy has put a priority on businesses having the ability to learn, adapt and leverage opportunities, not just scale execution of standard processes. A collaborative community working as a wirearchy better reflects this goal.
Nice Theory, So How Does it Apply to Collaboration in Communities
When we apply our typical constraints mindsets to the launch of a collaborative community, there can be a lot of debate around limiting the employee choices of use of collaboration. Many organisations develop prescriptive what to use when guides trying to channel the fluid collaboration of knowledge work as if it is a production line process. Other organisations focus on restricting their employees valid uses and objectives for collaboration in an effort to ensure efficiency in a community process. Some even go as far as trying to prescribe particular activities and use cases. The mindset underlying all these efforts is the traditional hierarchical management by constraint.
However, collaboration in communities cannot be programmed. Effective collaboration in communities is emergent. Organisations can scaffold the development of value in the community, helping users to more quickly find value and leverage collaboration, but they do not need to constrain the choices for users. Users will make rational decisions to allocate their time, efforts and potential to solve the issues that matter to them, their peers and the organisation. Well managed this is a highly inclusive process where people bring new ideas, new capabilities and new approaches into the organisation and socialise them with their peers to find the best fit to the organisational and personal goals of the community. This process of finding a community fit is an adaptive learning process and a source of new abundance in organisations.
Fostering this process requires organisations to signal that AND is a valid option. The need to encourage inclusion and value the diversity of approaches. Employees can pursue multiple paths simultaneously reflecting different circumstances and capabilities. Employees are given the opportunity to engage as they see fit, not forced to engage in the standard way. The test of success is fitness or as the definition of wirearchy puts it “a focus on results”. If the results are being achieved, does it matter that everyone got there a different way? Working out loud will create transparency and learning to help align better approaches and foster sharing of success. In time, this process of diverse experimentation will discover new standards and new approaches.
We have a lot yet to learn about new ways of working. What is clear is that we will get there faster if we embrace the diverse power of AND.
The commonest error in plans to develop social collaboration in an organisation is the most obvious error. Too many plans aren’t focused on the work. You don’t have a strategy for realising the value of collaboration in your organisation if it doesn’t focus on the work of your organisation.
Early Friday morning last week was the #ESNChat tweet chat. Rita Zonius and Dion Hinchcliffe were discussing a question about the plans for developing ESNs. Dion reiterated an important point – adoption or other abstract goals don’t matter. Your business is in business and needs your employees doing something meaningful.
One Success Measure
The only measure of success that really matters to your business is the value that you create in your social collaboration. Value doesn’t have to be measured wholly in monetary terms but for a great majority of businesses value will have clear measures and commonly direct financial elements. Value creation, broadly defined, is what separates successful businesses from the pack.
Your organisation exists to fulfil some purpose. The strategy that is in place in your organisation sets out how you will maximise the value of the work to realise that purpose. If social collaboration in your organisation is not directly connected to this strategy and the value to be created for purpose, then everyone in your organisation has the right, and the obligation, to (a) question why it matters and (b) ignore it.
Measuring value in collaboration is hard. This challenge is greater when organisations are often sceptical of new ways or working or chains of benefits. Usually the benefit realisation happens away from the platform and is measurable only in other systems. Many proponents of social collaboration choose to ignore the hard to measure benefits and focus on easier to track goals, like adoption, satisfaction, sentiment, engagement or measures created specifically for the organisation’s collaboration plan. The danger of failing to align the measures of social collaboration to the measures of the meaningful work of the organisation is the danger of irrelevance.
The most damning criticism of many social collaboration networks showing high degrees of adoption and engagement is that they are a “parallel universe” to the real organisation and its interactions. In this parallel universe, the hierarchy is levelled, leaders are proactively engaging people in conversation, employees are empowered to speak up and discuss their whole lives and great strides are being made in engaging employees and advocating for social issues. In the office, not so much.
In this scenario, the lack of accountability for real work outcomes has allowed the collaboration network to drift into play-acting an ideal organisation. Without real work there are no hard decisions and no ugly compromises. Without real work, it is easier for everyone to get along. You only need a little bit of fantasy to undermine the interactions of an entire network.
When a collaboration network is focused on supporting the real work interactions that network is bound to what goes on across the organisation. There is a greater chance that the discussions in the network will reflect the issues, the challenges and the interactions that happen in the corridors of the conversation, for good and for bad. Getting tough work challenges into a collaboration network, as ugly as they may be, enables the network to help address and improve them.
Many organisations like the idea of a utopian network that shows them their better side. Role modelling is a valuable purpose. However, role modelling only works when the interactions are real. The network can only contribute to making those interactions better, if the work is being done in some way across the network. Without the work, there can be no greater value.
A better network for social collaboration does the hard work to fulfil the organisation’s strategy. You don’t have a strategy for your social collaboration if you don’t have that work and aren’t measuring its value.