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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 changing nature of work accelerates the demands on everyone. Both employees and managers are coping with busier schedules, more messages, more decisions and more challenges on a daily basis. If you are helping a manager focus on letting them do what they do best – set priorities. Don’t dumb down the decisions or you risk disempowering yourself.
This week I spoke to a client who was working for a busy senior manager. In an effort to make life easier for the manager, the client was breaking decisions down into small parts and getting quick sign-off one step a time. Despite how easy this process seemed, the relationship was growing difficult and the manager wasn’t always happy with the process.
As we explored this situation it became apparent that what the manager liked to do most of all was set priorities across the whole sweep of my client’s work. The manager had hired someone that had the skills and experience to succeed. He expected small decisions to be made quickly and the work executed well. The manager was looking to shape the work and ensure that it was on track and delivered in the right way. He didn’t want to make decisions all the time, even easy ones and especially not ones that were so carefully packaged there was no way to say anything other than yes.
In our efforts to make matters easier for senior managers, it can be easy to make the process too simple. Managers don’t want to be managed. They want to do what they do best which is tackle complex challenges, manage multiple priorities and shape the deliver of work. If we simplify the decisions too much we are depriving them of this opportunity and also depriving ourselves of the chance to make the simple clear cut decisions.
Working out loud on the priorities in your work with a senior manager can be a way to satisfy their need to understand the whole context, help with complexity and manage priorities. It also empowers you to get on with the obvious work. Focus on the priority calls and ask managers to assist you with these. Little straightforward decisions are best made by the person with most knowledge, which will always be you.
Convincing an employee to take on the new practice of working out loud depends on being able to make a credible case for their personal benefits. Working Out Loud sounds new, different and risky at first.
Amy Edmondsen has done extensive research on team collaboration and demonstrated that a key component of participation in collaboration in teams is a sense of psychological safety for individuals. People need to feel it is safe to take interpersonal risk to learn, collaborate and experiment together. It is challenging asking people to Work Out Loud if the leadership, performance or other aspects of the culture make that personally difficult or disadvantageous.
One of the reasons that the Value Maturity Model above works to build collaboration and working out loud up from connection and sharing is that it is a way to build trust and develop the culture of collaboration from safer foundations. Focusing sharing and solving around work needs and goals through working out loud can make it easier to change the culture leveraging work needs and key strategic priorities.
Working Out Loud can contribute to changing an unsafe culture, but that will take the work of Change Agents to role model the way and to run the risks of pushback. The kind of Change Agent who will take on a harsh culture to drive change is rarer than we would like.
The Practitioner’s Hard Benefits
A lot has been written about the human benefits of working out loud. Deeper connection to others, richer learning, personal purpose and fulfilment, the personal rewards of generosity and collaboration are all real and lasting benefits of working out loud. However, business is business and some users are looking for ‘hard’ financial benefits as their sole focus for change. The more demanding and siloed the performance environment, the more likely you will need to build your story on financial returns.
There are few sectors more focused on hard measurement of value than financial services. When I worked in banking we used to say there were four things you could do to create value for a customer. Our customer propositions were focused on the bank’s ability to:
- save time,
- save money,
- enable people to make money, or
- protect money or other assets (from risk)’.
A variant of these four holds for the personal financial benefits of working out loud to a practitioner:
- Save time: avoid search, avoid learning time, avoid wasted work & prevent duplicate work
- Save money: prevent duplicate work, improve alignment, avoid coordination costs, avoid expensive learning, avoid errors & rework, improve personal productivity & effectiveness
- Make money: better align to needs, leverage diversity of ideas and solutions, leverage broad contributions & agility of teams, reuse intellectual property, make experience a transferable product
- Protect: benefit from experience & learning of others, manage experiments easily, reduce risks, improve quality, etc
Each practitioner’s potential benefit equation will be unique. Work with their needs and circumstances to identify a suite of hard and soft benefits that engages their attention and provides an incentive for them to start the journey of working out loud.
Yesterday, I had an opportunity to gather with two colleagues to prepare a joint presentation for a future conference. We had put aside 2 hours to work on integrating three distinct approaches to the role of collaboration in digital disruption into one compelling approach. After thirty fire-cracking minutes of sharing, building on each other’s ideas and the odd challenge, we had advanced everyone’s understanding and put together an exciting story that we all passionate believe in. We were so excited by the outcome that we will likely seek to convert the approach to other formats as well. What made the experience is exciting was how quickly 3 diverse perspectives came together when approached with trust, openness, generosity, a focus on practice and a willingness to learn. This conversation was working out loud at its finest.
Working out loud helps me every day to understand and engage with diverse perspectives on my work. I am a middle aged white male who has had many senior executive positions. I am regularly hired as an expert, a consultant and a speaker. I am confident in my opinions and given too much latitude can easily slip into the bad habit of dominating conversation. However, I don’t learn anything when I am speaking. All I do is confirm what I believe to myself.
Working out loud is an opportunity to change that pattern of interaction. When I am open with what is going on, but not yet finished, I invite the contributions and corrections of others. When I am open and generous, I encourage others to trust me more and respect the vulnerability I have shown. As I haven’t concluded the work, I have less to defend. I don’t engage the other people around me as well by expressing conclusions because I am tempted to fight for them. When I haven’t finished, I am much more open to learn and to develop ideas based on the generative inputs of others.
Working out loud has taught me to go seek the voices of the quiet participants in groups and to seek views from further afield than my usual interactions. I have learned to encourage others to share their harshest views of my work. In some of the most brutally unfair criticism, there can be insight to another worldview or a different message that needs to be addressed in my work. Working out loud around the world has also helped me to understand the hidden cultural expectation that shape our work and our behaviour. Effective change and adoption require us to be able to surface and engage with these cultural expectations as well. There is more that I can do to gain additional perspectives but I know that working out loud will be a critical vehicle for me in learning from the views of a diverse community of collaborators.
Leadership is the art of realising potential. That potential is often least tapped where diversity is suppressed or people’s contributions are not being considered. Working out loud as a leader can play an important role in supporting an inclusive environment and gathering new views and contributions. All leaders need to reflect on how they step outside their own experience and opinions and learn from the wider community around their work.
Working out loud is a way to discover new network connections and new capabilities in your existing network. The value of working out loud is in who and what you don’t know.
Collaboration is straightforward if you know someone and know that they have the ability to help. You have to get over the inconvenience of asking for help. You might have to negotiate a little to win their support. Either way, it is a straight line from need to outcome.
When you don’t know who can help, finding a partner for collaborative work or learning is less simple. Searching for help is time-consuming frustrating and daunting. The power of working out loud is it enables you to break the traditional networking mantra:
“It’s who you know”.
Working out loud opens up a wider network of partners for collaborative work and learning because it changes the dynamic from “who you know” to “what the network knows about you”. Working out loud leverages the value of what you don’t know:
“It’s not who you know. It’s who you don’t know and what they know about you.”
Sharing work in progress with a relevant community is a step towards discovering new people who can help your work or learn together with you. When your goals, status, and current efforts are narrated openly for others to follow, word gets around. Intermediaries can start to make connections between you and those who can help. Your close network ties will find the weak ties who can add value to your work for you.
The unique value of working out loud as a way to engage your network is that for both you and your network it opens opportunities to create new connections based on new understanding of your work. Don’t be discouraged that you don’t know those in the know. Work out loud and let them find you instead.
“What to Share Where” guides have become very popular given the breadth of collaboration tools available in an organisation and beyond. They have even generated a parody. Helping people make sense of the opportunities to work out loud is important. However, prescriptive solutions can work against the opportunities that come from sharing work. Not all work fits the formula. Not all tools support community. The bigger opportunity is to encourage people to reflect on the communities that best support the purpose of their work.
The Right Community for Working Out Loud
Concerns about the audience for working out loud dominate the discussion of the topic. Many people get concerned that out loud means total transparency. They worry that to work out loud they must share their work with everyone. There is no one size fits all answer for working out loud.
The right community matters more than size or the tool used to share. Any form of sharing is making work more public. We need to recognise that there are lots of different channels for conversations and that each channel may have different participants using the tool in different ways. Just because a tool has a dominant pattern of use doesn’t mean everyone we may want to engage uses it in that way. The tool matters less than the connections it creates and the connections matter less than the sense of community. The right community is one that values your work, has an ability to learn or assist your work and allows you to build deeper relationships.
A Key Question for Working Out Loud
We can start small and expand the community around our work over time as we grow in confidence and learn the value of working out loud. The networks we use to reach our community can be big or small. They can use technology or not.
The key question that we need to ask each time we want to share work is:
“Where is the best community to share this work?”
The answer to that question won’t be the same for every piece of work we do. We might share with one other person, a small group, a team, a business unit, an organisation, a community, a network or the world depending on the work. At times the answer is not to share. Often we won’t be able to predict the best answer and may have to experiment with different networks to learn a way that works for us, our community and the work. In these scenarios, a bias to openness helps us to learn more. Reflecting on the right community, brings our human collaborators to the centre of the question of where to share.
Better effectiveness of work and better relationships come from creating an ongoing reflection about the value of sharing work with others and the right communities in which to do so. This reflection puts the human opportunity of working out loud before the tool or the work. That is far more valuable than the outcome of following any prescriptive formula.