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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.
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.