You Can’t Take Your Cat to the Park! So #WOL

Working out loud is a way to share work that might otherwise be missed By sharing this work you create new valuable interactions around that work.

You Can’t Take Your Cat to the Park

The internet loves cats. We share more photos of cats than dogs and even selfies. There have been attempts to explain cat photos as an projection of internet neuroses, for their cuteness, their lack of cuteness, or simply unexplainable.

Rick Wingfield has an elegant hypothesis based in human behaviour for why cats might feature so prominently in internet sharing. Dog owners get to take their pet on walks to the park. They get to interact and receive praise for their dog in a social context.

You can’t take a cat to the park.  If you want interaction around your ownership of a cat, you have to share a photo or video. Other cat owners have the same need for interaction around their cats. Could this be the basis for our cat sharing passion? The hypothesis demands research but it also highlights a common challenge at work that is solved by working out loud.

Most of Your Work Isn’t Known to Others.

Working is more like owning a cat than owning a dog (& just as frustrating at times). Just as you can’t take a cat to the park, much of the work that you do is not known to those around you. This is a major cause of frustration in the performance management process and a cause of loss of employee engagement.

Other people may see some outputs and the few achievements that are celebrated by others. However, the majority of the work and the challenges each of us face are achieved quietly without fanfare or recognition. Like cat owners, the joy & frustrations of this work are a private experience.

Many people want more help, recognition and interaction around the work that they do. We crave the ability to connect with and learn from others doing similar work and facing similar challenges. However, most of the time there is no way for others to see the work that we do.  That work never leaves the small circles in which we operate and the closed systems like emails and hard drives in which we share it.

Working Out Loud = Cat Pictures

Adopting working out loud as a practice enables others to engage us about our work.  

Working out loud facilitates others to guide, help, praise, reuse and share our work. Working out loud also fosters a sense of community around work that encourages better value creation, better alignment and the development of communities of practice.

Don’t forget the sharing of your work can create value for others far from your work place.  Enabling others to reuse, learn from or improve on your experience is an incredibly powerful outcome of the sharing from working out loud.  What seemed to you a small piece of work can create value widely. You may even discover your work is more valuable than you or your boss ever realised. As John Stepper has pointed out, working out loud can add a new dimension to your next performance conversation.

You can’t take a cat for a walk. However, you can share your daily work and start new sharing & interaction around that work. You will be surprised by the rewards.

When Circumstances Change, Change Your Approach

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Changing circumstances demand changes in approach. Clinging to the old ways can be dangerous.

The Praying Mantis in the Schoolyard

When confronted with a threat, a praying mantis has a set program of responses to take advantage of the advantages of excellent camouflage: freeze & blend in, sway like a leaf, run to the nearest tree. All these strategies work well in the normal circumstances of a praying mantis, the leafy greenery of trees.

However when the wind is blowing strongly and a praying mantis finds itself blown to the unfamiliar circumstances of schoolyard asphalt, none of these strategies work. It can’t blend in. Freezing exposes it to risk of being stomped. What it runs towards is not a tree. It is the leg of a small curious boy. In the end, it need a generous young girl to carry it back to the bushes to escape the growing crowd.

Change Your Approach

A praying mantis can’t change its approach immediately. Evolution will take a while to catch up with asphalt. It will eventually adapt as a species, but that doesn’t help any individual insect.

Your organisation isn’t programmed by genetics. When circumstances change, your organisation and its people can adopt new approaches, experiment to find new ways and learn how to succeed in the new environment. If your organisation is still responding to the new network economy with the same approaches and practices that worked in the industrial era, it can be as dangerous as outdated practices were to the mantis. Nobody will be generous enough to return your organisation to its preferred environment.

There is No Formula – Just Learning

Many managers find this discussion deeply unsettling. Advocates of the future of work are calling for change, but they are often either highly conceptual or discussing concepts that seem very alien to the circumstances in an organisation.

The abstraction has a reason. The future of work is being driven by a network economy where the right strategies are often emergent and adaptive. Adopting a new fixed formula is as dangerous as the last one. While we would like a formula (and many offer to sell one), the future strategies need to be learned for each organisation in its own circumstances in the network.  Change can’t be imposed it needs to be led one conversation at a time.

Creating a responsive organisation that can leverage the human potential to learn and experiment a way forward will take new techniques and new ways of organising.  Many of these techniques that are rising to the fore in discussion of the future of work and responsive organisations are ways to foster the emergence of a new better approaches for organisation using networks, rather than fighting them.  That’s why much of the conversation comes back to enabling people to learn and act in new ways:

  • Leadership: fostering the leadership capabilities of each person to leverage their insights and their potential to lead change from their unique position
  • Experimentation: Moving from exercising the power and expertise of a few to experimenting to learn together
  • Learning: improving the ability to understand the environment by focusing on tools to better seek out, share and make sense of information.
  • Work out Loud: aligning the organisation and bringing out latent human capabilities using techniques like ‘working out loud
  • Collaboration & Community: Networks route around barriers. Therefore you need to bring down the barriers within and around your organisation. Isolation is not a winning strategy in a period of rapid change.

Working Out Loud is the Lean Start-up of Knowledge

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Working out loud enables early validation and engagement of others in ideas. By putting ideas to the test early when formed only to a minimum viable level wasted effort is avoided and the ideas move to fruition quicker. In this way working out loud reflects the value creation approaches of lean start-up.

Working out loud on Minimum Viable Ideas

One of the exercises in Harold Jarche’s PKM in 40 days program is around Narration of your work. I am a huge fan of working out loud and initially I wasn’t sure that I had much to learn. However, I took a risk and learned something new.

My experiment was to apply some lean start-up thinking to a concept that I am developing and put it out in a minimum viable form and seek feedback on how to develop that idea further in a relevant community. In this case, the idea was represented in minimum viable form as a single diagram and a story of where I was headed. Minimum viability in this case is just enough information to convey the information and test the key hypotheses that I wished to explore. 

We are used to fully thinking things through before sharing them. I am especially cautious around this. We are told that sharing something incomplete might be dangerous as people might form an incorrect impression or might copy the idea. I’d hate to miss an opportunity around something that seems important to my work. We are not use to putting minimum viable ideas forward for debate. 

However, perfecting ideas beyond that point in the quiet of our own workplace often means that when they are delivered they fall flat, miss the mark or need further work. How often have you worked long and hard on an idea that you believe in to have the “is that all?” response? I know it too well.

Working out loud brings Validation

My experience of narration was really powerful validation.  The diagram has drawn a great deal of support and feedback.  People have encouraged me to flesh out the tools behind the work.  They have suggested next steps, connections and applications that I can leverage further.  I have even had volunteers offer to work with me and someone offering to coach me in the lean start-up of this concept.

Working out loud clarifies Hypotheses

The other aspect of this experience was that working out loud enabled me to better understand the hypotheses that were a part of the work that I was doing. Had I gone on alone, I would have just buried these assumptions in the work.

Framing up my engagement of others as a test of the ideas pushed me to understand what were the key hypotheses that I needed others to confirm. Testing the assumptions reduces the risk of investing more time in the idea.

Working out loud reinforces Learning (Permanently Beta)

Because I and others know the idea is in development, improvement is part and parcel of sharing the work out loud. I don’t feel obliged to defend the work as I have less invested. I can be more dispassionate about the feedback of others as to how to improve the work. I learn more faster.

Work out loud to create value

Working out Loud with a Lean Start-up mindset can deliver powerful value in the creation and sharing of knowledge. As knowledge work becomes more important in the future of work, we need to be more effective and faster in our creation and sharing of knowledge. Practices like working out loud will drive real value the productivity, effectiveness and engagement of knowledge workers.