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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.
As we begin to explore the collaborative potential of connection, co-creation is becoming increasingly important solution to problems. Organisations are increasingly looking to employees, partners and suppliers to be a part of efforts to co-create solutions to complex problems. Collaborative co-creation is a key part of the Solve phase of the Value Maturity Model. As we practice co-creation, we discover bigger opportunities to create value.
Most co-creation begins with some kind of crowd-sourcing of ideas to solve problems. Diversifying the sources and inputs into the creation of a solution can enable big steps forward. Often new stakeholders have solutions to hand, see potential to reuse capabilities or bring opportunities to do things in new ways. Crowd-sourcing can be a fast and effective way to gather inputs from a large group of people towards a solution.
Efforts at crowd-sourcing solutions need to plan for two main challenges:
- Lack of Connection: To contribute meaningful solutions, people need to feel connected to the problem and to each other.
- The Volume of ideas overwhelms Execution: ideas are great but the exercise to sift and integrate diverse ideas can be a drain on execution. This is why many efforts at crowd-sourcing turn into a show of ‘engagement’ with no traction on the ideas submitted.
Co-Creating the Work
The next level of co-creation is when people come together to take a solution and execute it. The challenges of a problem don’t stop when you have an idea. People need to solve all the little issues and manage the idea until it is successfully implemented.
Make sure the expectation in you co-creation community is that work will be done to solve the problem. Give the community the autonomy to follow their ideas. People will contribute better ideas if they think that they have to see them through. Co-creation is more meaningful to a community that has been asked to work the problem together. Challenge them to take their ideas and see them through to implementation.
Co-Creating the Problem
The final level of co-creation goes back to the start and looks at the system from a higher view. This level removes the constraint that the problem definition is externally imposed on the community. At this level of co-creation, the community has responsibility to find, create and implement its own solutions. To do this the community is going to need to start to ask questions about Purpose, the scope of the system and what goals they have for the system. Bring a diverse group of stakeholders in to shape the problems and you may discover new problems and that some of your current problems aren’t such a big issue. The third level asks the community to own co-creation from Purpose, through Diagnosis, and then to the Design and Execution of any solutions.
A recent conversation with Cai Kjaer and Laurence Lock Lee of Swoop Analytics about the Value Maturity Model highlighted a key point that is at the heart of many organisation’s struggles to get value from enterprise social collaboration. Too many organisations are stuck below the Share>Solve boundary. Once you connect enterprise social collaboration to work, the benefits for users and the organisation expand exponentially.
Sharing Out Loud
The first reaction in many organisations to an enterprise social network is to see it as a chance to share out loud. What people see first is the potential for status updates, sharing of articles, links and other stories of interest. This is natural human behaviour and it will be heavily influenced by the culture of social media use in your employee base.
As we have discussed in previous posts, sharing adds value in helping provide transparency, shared context, reducing duplication and enabling better alignment. If Sharing Out Loud is as far as the Working Out Loud goes then it can add value. Sharing is the core concept behind the knowledge worker productivity case for benefits of enterprise social collaboration. Share information and it is findable. Findable information can be reused.
Any organisation that does not move beyond Sharing will face a number of key challenges. Sharing is where there is a lot of noise. Filtering the sharing with groups and other approaches becomes important. Users get frustrated that there is so much information and so little value. Networks can alienate users because a few loud or extroverted voices dominate the traffic and shape perceptions of what an enterprise social network can contribute. Senior executives will quickly lose interest in a network that does not reflect their work and their strategic priorities. A network that is only sharing will need sustained energy from community management or passionate users to survive.
The Launch Point: The Sharing-Solving Boundary
When an enterprise social community crosses the boundary from Sharing to Solving, the dynamic changes. Bringing work into the community provides a momentum and new benefit cases for all users. The purpose of the community and the benefits it can provide begins to clarify and the distinction between an enterprise social and other forms of social media can clarify for people. The work itself begins to provide the energy, rhythm and momentum of the community.
We can help users to turn a Sharing Out Loud community into a Working Out Loud community through strategic community management. We can provide the right context and strategy for the use of collaboration. We can structure the opportunities for Connection, Solving, and Sharing around the key interactions and challenges of the work of the organisation. We can focus on the culture of collaboration and generosity in helping others. All of this helps users to sustain their activity in the Solving domain.
One other benefit of focusing on moving above this boundary is that you are building key foundations for innovation. Employees who develop confidence in an enterprise social collaboration solution as a place to solve their problems will begin to explore how to fulfill their new ideas there. People move easily from How? to What if? Employees who learn to create agile teams to solve problems can apply those same teaming skills to new ideas. The growing wirearchy of work can be reused to provide an engine to innovation work in your organisations.
Creating an environment where employees (& others) can work out loud on real business problems and challenging customer opportunities is the work of strategic community management. The value created beyond the Sharing-Solving Boundary is exponentially greater than that before. If you want the attention of the business stakeholders to support your community, you will need to Work Out Loud.
If you are interested in exploring further how to the Collaboration Value Canvas, enables organisations to conduct a two-hour workshop with business stakeholders to ensure that the business has an integrated plan for its community management and adoption work. Contact Simon Terry to discuss how this could be applied in your organisation.
For suggestions on how Swoop Analytics can help you measure this transition see Cai Kjaer’s post on Linkedin.
When we begin to incorporate the practice of working out loud into our work we can inadvertently fall into an unhelpful pattern of seeking help only when work is hard. Working out loud when it is easy is important to balance the risks of working out loud by building relationships of trust and collaboration.
We Work Out Loud When It is Hard
Working out loud when work is hard is obvious. If you are facing a big challenge, there can be real benefits of getting the insights, ideas, resources and support of others. Your network when aware of your challenges can make a big impact. For many people sharing challenges is where they want to start their working out loud. Working on a big challenge together with others can bring many rewards, including the feeling of heroic leadership.
However, working out loud when work is hard is a time when we feel the risks of sharing can be greater. Bigger challenges bring their own sets of fears. Do we look incompetent? Are we creating an impression we need help a lot? Are we too demanding on our networks? What if nobody can help because the task is too hard? Many of these fears can be managed through careful framing of our requests for help, choosing where we share and by considering the needs of others. However, it is also important that we don’t just share our big challenges. A consistent practice of working out loud helps.
Work Out Loud on the Easy Work Too
When work is easy, we often forget to work out loud. There are a number of reasons:
- We want the exclusive credit for our easy successes.
- We assume there is no better way
- We can do them so quickly we forget to share or don’t reflect on our experience.
- We don’t value the things that we do well.
- We assume everyone else knows
Whatever the reason we are missing opportunities for shared value. What is easy to us is not always easy or obvious to others. Others can learn from our easy work. Sharing credit with your network can be a great way to give back to those who help us when times are tough. Importantly, showing people what you do that works well helps build a great profile and balances out the traditional risks of sharing when work is hard.
Building a relationship of trust and collaboration with your networks is far easier when you are consistent.
Helping doubters to see the value of working out loud involves not just enabling them to experience others differently but helping them to see the value of the greater good. A challenge we face is that the value that flows from giving of ourselves travels along a convoluted path.
Reciprocal Benefits: Stories of the Paths of Referrals
Almost all my consulting work comes through referrals. Working out loud is a key foundation for that flow of referrals. However, there’s no linear process, no response rate to track and no measure that can capture the paths through which these come. I don’t work out loud for referrals.
I don’t work out loud for referrals. I work out loud to better understand lessons from the work I have each day and to benefit from the insights of others on that work. I also enjoy that others can share these lessons. However, generating business value is a lovely side benefit.
That benefit is not predictable because it is a function of reputation, relationships and work that’s ongoing, not a transactional exchange. Here are some examples:
- I post on Linkedin about working out loud week and the post is shared widely. The post reminds a former colleague of mine about me and some work we did together. My friend refers me to a friend of their as a potential solution for an unrelated topic.
- I agree to have coffee with a friend of a friend who is running a small business to discuss a business challenge. After a number of conversations where I offer some advice, things go quiet as we both return to our work. Months later, the small business owner refers me to another friend of theirs. Eventually, a colleague of that person retains me for some work.
- I collaborate with a small group of partners and competitors over four years. We share insights, ideas, and approaches even when we occasionally come up head to head competing against each other for work. After a number of years, there’s a flow of great referral opportunities between members of the network. We like working with each other. We understand each other’s relative expertise. We know we can’t do everything.
I see each of those examples of referrals to my consulting practice as an indirect outcome of reputation, relationships and work done out loud over many years. I have faith that if I continue to work in this way the benefits will keep flowing. Try explaining it to a doubter and they will explain it away as a result of hidden strategy, luck, reputation, or expertise.
The Greater Benefit of Altruism
Even harder for the doubter to grasp is that I would still work out loud, if none of these or other examples had happened. I enjoy helping others. Seeing others succeed in their work because you were able to assist is amazing. Having the ability to help others is a privilege.
I knew the power of help and generosity. However, I had not seen the specific power of working out loud until I started blogging consistently at work. Each day I shared a post on some lesson from my work and career. The posts were short and the audience was small as they were shared only inside the organisation. I realised the value to others one day when walking into the building a stranger enthusiastically rushed up to me and thanked me for a recent post. Speaking like a close friend, they explained that the post had enabled them to solve a problem and they now used that technique consistently. One person’s work had been made easier by my blogpost and they were extraordinarily grateful. Even more remarkable, a person I had never met felt they knew me well enough to forget to even introduce themselves.
Work today is hard, competitive, and it can be alienating for people. Creating just one moment of human connection founded in generosity can make a wonderful difference to others. It can also be a great reminder that those who give receive the greatest rewards, even if nothing ever comes back but thanks.