The Privilege of Working Out Loud


Not everyone is allowed to work out loud. Those who can must value their opportunities and seek to help others to share.

I was reading an article in the newspaper on the weekend about a new book by Tara Moss on “Speaking Out: A 21st Century Handbook for Women and Girls”. The discussion in the book of barriers to women speaking up and the techniques that can assist caused me to reflect on the barriers many people face in sharing their work out loud.

Not everyone can work out loud. The real pressures that hold people back can be social, gender, hierarchy or the culture of their organisation. For many people, the expectation in their organisation is that someone with their position, role or work will keep silent, do what they are told and just deliver. Something as simple as talking out loud about your work with others is a privilege.

As a privilege, working out loud is something that needs to be used with respect. I have always stressed that working out loud is a choice. We cannot mandate it, because that choice will not suit many and may not be available to all.

As a privilege, working out loud should be used to benefit others. If you can work out loud, you have a contribution to make. Those who can speak out have an opportunity to help others to be heard. Those who can speak out can support others who may face barriers or abuse. Those who can speak out have an opportunity to role model better ways and to fight for changes that give voices to others in their organisation and their society.

If you can work out loud, use that privilege to help others.

The Diversity of the Change Agent

Change agents aren’t all alike. Organisations that fail to embrace the diversity of the change agent fail at change.

Change agents are a diverse bunch. 

Organisations tend to lump them together in an ‘outsider’ bucket. When change agents don’t think & act in the way of the majority then it is assumed their different way is shared. Yet change agents often find collaboration challenging when they don’t understand that a common desire for change can be driven from diverse motives and methods. 

Adam Morgan of eatbigfish describes 10 challenger narratives in The Challenger Almanac.  These narratives that give a sense of the diversity of motivations and approaches to change: 

  • People’s Champion – standing up for the exploited or overlooked
  • Missionary – ethical or ideological advocate 
  • Democratiser – challenging elitism and exclusivity 
  • Irreverent Maverick – the provocateur 
  • Enlightened Zagger – the deliberate contrarian 
  • Real & Human – advocating for the human 
  • The Visionary – transcending current ideas 
  • The Next Generation – improving fitness to the future
  • The Game Changer – rewriting the rules
  • The Feisty Underdog – battling the winners 

Few change agents fit cleanly in one narrative. Often many narratives will be woven into a unique personal approach. There are plenty of opportunities for conflict as to the objectives and methods in the diversity of narratives. 

Change agents and the organisations that seek to foster their work need to concentrate on building connection as to what is in common. Ideological debates and fractious debates as to approach can illuminate the diverse paths but they tend to delay action. 

Change agents need to embrace the action of others, learn from diverse perspectives and leverage alignment of narratives. Broadening the toolkit of change benefits both the change agents and their organisations.

The Power of Collaboration

I was recently chatting to a doctor who described to me why she still works in emergency rooms well after others may have chosen to retire from a successful career. These days she sees fewer patients but she still plays a critical role in the functioning of a ward.

Her role is to contribute to management of the ward and most important of all she shares her wisdom and experience with her colleagues. She is a sounding board for opinions, guides the choice of tests and scans, helps read charts, and generally available to consult and guide others in the high pressure and high stress environment of an emergency room.

Where is the special value in access to advice and experience vs more hands-on work?

Well, the hospital asked the same question. Hospital budgets are tight and they need to be allocating their resources carefully to produce the best outcomes. Rather than assume an answer the hospital looked at the data and compared the time patients waited and the outcomes for the whole ward on the days the experienced doctor worked versus the other shifts. To everyone’s surprise, there was a dramatic improvement when she was working and advising her colleagues. Wait times for patients were significantly reduced on those shifts. In an emergency ward that time makes a big difference.

Adding a doctor to the shift who had a career of experience and had accumulated years of tacit knowledge made the entire system of the emergency ward perform better. Doctors took less time over their decisions and needed less often to wait to interrupt a busy colleague to get advice. That matters a great deal when many of the decisions are time critical and life threatening.

This is not a story about skills. All the doctors are smart, passionate and talented. They made their own decisions on what to do and when they needed advice. The ward is always well run, but it runs better with the opportunity for more collaboration. What mattered was that the opportunity for collaboration and access to greater experience, improved the outcomes by speeding the exchange of knowledge in the ward.

Tacit knowledge and experience matters to speed and to outcomes in knowledge work. Knowledge is a flow and comes from interactions between people with diverse experiences. Being able to draw on more of these interactions can save a great deal of rework and mitigation of doubts and concerns.

How do you enable sharing of knowledge and experience?

This story resonated deeply with me because I have both benefited from the advice of others and spent a significant part of my time sharing my experience with others. Knowledge work is a growing share of most developing economies (around 40% in Australia, US and EU) In my experience, the use of experience and advice in knowledge work is often undervalued by organisations and they rarely consider the impact of advice and counsel on team performance. This story was a great example of an organisation that measured that impact and saw a dramatic result.

There are a few lessons from this story that apply to all organisations:

  • Recognise that in knowledge work the discussion, debate, advice and counsel is part of the work: Many organisations take an industrial view of knowledge work. If there’s not an immediate tangible final output it is waste. That means any conversations in and around the process of work are seen as waste. It is a common misguided criticism of enterprise social media – ‘why is there so much talk? shouldn’t people be working?’ They are working if they are improving their understanding, gathering insights, learning and solving problems more quickly. That a is all knowledge work. Importantly, that learning is permanent and shared.
  • Design ways of work, teams and connections to leverage experience and other forms of tacit knowledge: People with experience, shortcuts and life lessons can be an invaluable part of the team. Their prior experience as a part of a conversation with the team can accelerate progress and reduce risk. The smartest, most talented and most energetic bunch of people in the world are better with a wise advisor. Drawing out tacit knowledge into conversation improves others learning. Make plans to leverage this. Foster mentoring, make it OK to ask others and build an advice culture. Social collaboration tools are a great start.  
  • Use data, not assumptions, to determine the contribution of individuals to their groups and teams: Individual performance is usually easily measured. It takes a little more effort to understand the contribution of people to group performance. As many organisations have learned to their detriment, the person underpinning team performance may be the person with less visibility but who is sharing the most.

PS Don’t forget the value of diversity too: Another key lesson is the power of leveraging older workers, especially female role models. There may be benefits you have not considered in a greater diversity of experience. This takes effort from organisations to create flexible roles that suit their interests and passions and a work environment to which they want to contribute. With the changing demographics of an ageing workforce, this is an important consideration for all employers.

Competency or Capability? Mindsets Matter

Competency and capability are near synonyms. However I find there is a world of difference in the mindset that lies behind each measure of individual development. The difference in mindset has major ramifications for careers, talent development and diversity. The two mindsets raise different questions when assessing individuals.

I have personal experience of the difference. When I have failed to win a role that I sought, the feedback is almost always framed in terms of lack of a demonstrated competency. However when I win new roles it is rarely because I had a demonstrated competency in the area of expertise that defined the role. My career has been based on bringing my set of capabilities to address the challenges and needs of each role.

Competency Mindsets vs Capability Mindsets

Discussions framed around competency are often conducted with a mindset of assessing an individual against a defined standard. Often competencies are defined quite specifically and related to limited areas of expertise. Compentencies are often seen as tools to enable someone to do a job. Competency assessment is much more likely to be oriented to formal qualifications, demonstrated prior experience or demonstration of specifically determined skills in action.  People seek to define a fixed goal for a skill relying heavily on past performance. Reaching competency is often seen as the end of the road for that skill. That mindset can be quite limiting in assessment & development of individuals.

Capability as a mindset should be focused on the ability to deliver an outcome, not a test score. Capabilites tend to be seen as infrastructure to achieve an outcome. This mindset tends to be more general, more open to allow more room for the application of other or similar skills and explicitly allows for a talented individual to prove a potential to show their ability in future.

Considering capabilities allows an individual to choose how to tackle at problems, roles or situations. Importantly, there is much less likely to be a defined limit to a capability which allows for the development of greater mastery over time.

Talent Development

A mindset of building competency in the development of talent often leaves the talent wondering why their career is not in their control. Talented people feel limited when pursuing competencies as a series of boxes to be ticked to progress to the next opportunity. There is little chance to skip ahead and prove the potential that made them talent in the first place.

Disruptive change also means that many narrow competencies individuals acquire can become rapidly irrelevant. At the very beginning of my career, I was quite proficient in the use of Wang messaging systems.  Thankfully my more general capabilities in communication supported my future career as email and now social technologies succeeded that now redundant system.

Focusing instead on the ability to achieve outcomes and building capability towards those outcomes gives the individual greater latitude to shape their career.  It also allows greater opportunity to demonstrate that ability in new or different roles that may not have the typical opportunity to show competency at a task.

Our Changing Future Demands Capability not Competency

In a rapidly changing world, defining the standard or even the actions required in a role in advance is challenging.  Organisations increasingly need to shift to outcome based performance measurement with less specific direction on tasks.  

The defined hierarchies that enabled graduated assessment of competencies and detailed command and control process management are proving more and more challenging to manage.  Flatter organisations are more focused on capabilities required to execute strategy.  Networked organisations help us see that the required capabilities+ may well exist in any part of the organisation’s network.  

We need people to bring diverse skills to solve new challenges and we need people to engage with their roles to build a continuous improvement in capabilities.  Allowing people the rewards of movement to mastery in any capability is critical to engagement.  

Merit: Think Capability, not Competency

Merit is a contentious issue in diversity. Often merit is used as an excuse for poor diversity outcomes. Merit can clearly influenced by conscious and unconscious bias. However, when discussing merit we are often unclear whether we mean merit considered on a competency or capability basis.  

Merit measured as competency tends to favour those who have had the opportunity to build prior knowledge and experience. Competency favours the usual suspects. Focusing instead on capability opens opportunities to consider new candidates and allows greater consideration of potential.

Any individual who has had limited opportunity to be fostered earlier in their career is likely to perform better in a mindset focused on their talent potential and ability to deliver, rather than prior experience or accrued skills.

Look Forward to Capability

The distinction between competency and capability is not one that is hard and fast. What this distinction does is open a new question in our decision making. Next time you are considering a role or a candidate reflect on whether there is a difference in your decisions if you look back to a competency or forward to capability. 

The few & the many

Large corporations are challenged sustaining & retaining change agents.  A handful of change agents can make an enormous difference to any organisation.  Change agents are at the heart of the ability to innovate, to adapt and to remain externally focused.  Change agents are often the gateway for new partners, explore the edges and conduit for new ideas into organisations because of their willingness to consider the new, to experiment and to get stuff done.

The ideal model is that leaders everywhere have the capability and the authority to drive change.  Like many ideal models, this oft stated ambition is harder to find in practice.  This difficulty is no excuse for not trying.  However, many corporates deliberately, or unwittingly, adopt a 21st century demarcation between traditional managers who keep the wheels of business as usual turning and their contingent of change agents who transform the business.

The best outcome for corporates is to have a spread of change agents across their business.  That way each function and division can be exposed to change.  For major initiatives, change agents from different silos can collaborate to bring the business together in key initiatives.  Sadly, this model is often the most dangerous for the change agents.  Change agents must operate in the midst of large groups of more traditionally oriented managers, dependent on a tolerance for diversity and ongoing support for their efforts and occasional failures. As one change agent put it to me, this model means that they have to deliver 110% of the contribution of a traditional manager in the organisation & then deliver change just to make their position safe.  The slightest slip creates an opportunity for backlash.

Commonly change agents will exist in clusters drawn to other similar individuals who are interested in new ideas and making change happen.  Some change agents explicitly recruit and develop teams who support their change agenda.  While this model can provide a safe haven to nurture change and change leaders, it creates a risk that the entire cluster can be lost at once with a change of leadership or a mass defection. Increasing fragility is not a sustainable solution.

So what can be done to foster the growth of change agents across an organisation?  Here are 6 actions to help.

  • Know who they are, what they are working on and show interest.  Who are your ‘go to’ people if it is new, difficult or demanding?  A simple cup of coffee or a phone call can do wonders in retaining and encouraging people to push for change.  Clearly, if you run talent processes you can be more deliberate in investing in their development and careers.
  • Value project work as much as line management.  Change agents will be drawn to projects, but if it is a ghetto you will lose their impact in the rest of the business.
  • Encourage diversity of individuals, allow diverse management styles and make openness to the new & different a key value in your organisation.  Remember not all change agents are charismatic leaders and many will be far from traditional homes in edgy technology, creative or strategic business opportunities.  The effective styles are as diverse as human nature.  Some of the most effective individuals may be working in surprising parts of the organisation.
  • Network your change agents so that they do not feel isolated, can share lessons, can collaborate and even use their collective power.  Encourage change agents to share their skills and develop teams of others who can drive change. An enterprise social network will help if your culture allows it.  Also encourage your change agents to network externally and to learn from others.  
  • Ensure your performance management systems reward people for driving change and do not fatally punish a single setback.  Peer measurement and forced rank systems can exaggerate the impact of setbacks & can be vulnerable to politics if not well managed.  If you only value delivery of business as usual results in performance and find comparisons to change agents hard, your change agents will get the message quickly.
  • Foster a culture of working aloud & sharing of ideas.  Working aloud provides protection for change agents. More importantly, it enables the change agents to role model their behaviours to inspire others across the organisation to embrace & lead change.

A little investment in change agents goes a long way.  Too many organisations have missed their opportunity.  They are the ones left wondering why change is suddenly so hard.

Perceptions matter

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – Martin Luther King Jr.

I am passionate advocate for diversity. I have seen the power of different perspectives, skills and backgrounds working together. Embracing diversity enables us to leverage the potential of all the world’s talents. We all need to advocate for more equal treatment of others.

If you consider this an issue for others, remember this. Discrimination is about perceptions. People are discriminated against because of what they are perceived to be and what that is assumed to mean. Gender, age, race, creed, sexual orientation, and any of the many other bases are all simply proxies for flawed human perceptions.

Perceptions can and will be wrong. Discriminatory perceptions are almost certainly guaranteed to be wrong. In a world that accommodates discrimination, you can never predict which side you will fall of the arbitrary line of these views.

There are too many reasons why someone, including you, might be in the wrong camp. I have seen people form false & prejudicial perceptions for reasons as silly as the colour of clothing, a person’s way of talking or the colour of hair. Silly as the reason may be the prejudice based on perception was real. That anyone should have to continue to experience prejudice is intolerable.

Don’t leave the fate of the talent in your organisation to arbitrary perceptions. Silence is not a strategy and cultural issues will not work themselves out in time. Take steps to address any issues:

  • make clear your own position, advocate for equality of opportunity and treatment and create a culture that calls inappropriate behaviours
  • go talk to those in your organisation who may be at risk of experiencing discrimination and listen to the stories of what is occurring
  • examine your own unconscious biases and encourage others to do the same 
  • make changes in people, policies and processes to foster a more representative organisation 

When nobody has to worry about the flawed perceptions of others, we are all better off.