Last week, we joined in a co-creation effort with an amazing bunch of colleagues at Bosch and John Stepper, author of Working Out Loud, to adapt the basic idea of WOL (Working Out Loud) circles to the challenge of team development and leadership communication, and we shared the results of this work at Bosch’s first WOL Convention in the lovely Wagenhallen in Stuttgart. It was a lot of fun.

Since the early blogging days, we have talked about the importance of narrating your work as a way to develop shared awareness and a culture of collaboration in the workplace. This became easier with the arrival of status-update tools such as Yammer and Socialcast, and later, Bryce Williams at Ely Lilly coined the term ‘Working out Loud’ as a shorthand for this way of working with collaboration tools in the enterprise. These days, living mostly in Slack, it seems so long ago that people didn’t routinely work out loud, but it is important to remember that most firms are still in a world of email, documents and up-and-down-the-hierarchy closed communication.

John’s book on Working out Loud is great. Based on his own experience of how working out loud changed his role in Deutsche Bank, it sets out some very simple practices individuals can use to develop their networks, their confidence and their ability to work out loud. The organic spread of his approach from circle to circle suggests that the method is helping people change the way they work.

We need people to be more connected if we are to create a culture of dialogue and collaboration, and the kind of collective awareness that makes for a more productive organisation. This can happen now through collaboration platforms and consumer social media tools, but still most communication goes up and down the hierarchy in closed formats such as email, which reinforces hierarchical relations and holds us back from becoming an agile company.

Instead of coordinating through hierarchy, we can coordinate through networks, but as IoT engineers can tell you about sensor networks, this requires network nodes to be talkative. To let others know their status and what they are up to.

Many of us are now living out loud, sharing life events, places, holidays and cute pictures on Facebook and Snapchat, and most of you have probably already come to understand how exposing more surface area like this increases what Dopplr used to call ‘coincidensity’ and creates more opportunities for human connection and understanding. But at work we still tolerate email, closed communication and very primitive forms for work coordination.

Working out Loud is a great technique that is easy to learn and creates a win-win between personal development, more engaged and empowered associates and a more effective and connected company.

Working out Loud for Teams

One of the key features of modern organisational structures is the focus on small, agile teams that have a clear purpose and pursue it together without a great deal of hierarchical management.

There is a lot of research and analysis into what makes high performance teams, but to really work well, agile teams need a level of connectedness, common purpose and mutual understanding that is above and beyond simple colleague relationships. If you look at the work of surgical teams, pilots and air crew or army squads, you will notice that they are always working out loud, narrating their actions so that the team maintains a constant awareness of the current situation to minimise errors.

We believe that working out loud for teams is a very simple but powerful practice that can help produce high performance teams and begin to spread the practice of working out loud by example, from team to team across the organisation.

Where this differs from the basic practice of individual WOL circles is the addition of team goals, both in terms of addressing long-term pain points, processing short-term tensions and aiming to create shared team capabilities.

Working out Loud for Leaders

Creating more agile, connected companies cannot happen without changes in the role that leaders and managers play in our organisations, as their culture and behaviours set the context and tone for how others operate. So how can WOL help?

If leaders are encouraged to narrate their work, to share their thoughts and ideas with their teams, those teams will have greater awareness of their goals and much greater alignment to strategic direction, and this will help improve not only management culture, but also the general working culture below by creating the permission to share and to collaborate in a safe and supported environment.

There are plenty of reasons why leaders might push back on this idea, from time pressures to worries about being seen to get things wrong, but these can all be worked through when the practice is seen in the context of the organisation as a whole and the leaders’ responsibilities within it. Many communications professionals have put a lot of effort into getting leaders to blog – to take time out to share their deeper thinking on the future, for example – but the number of leaders who routinely do this remains quite small. Seeing leaders blog is great, but there are two problems with that: first, blogging takes a lot of time and effort, which leaders often find hard to fit into their schedules; and, second, blogging big ideas tends to invite lots of likes but not much dialogue, because it comes across as the final word on a topic, rather than a conversation starter (which is what made early blogging so much fun) due to their position of power.

Instead, working out loud for leaders is about sharing short updates, things they are interested in, new technology proposals or innovations that have come across their desk, etc. It is about using their position of centrality in the various networks of the organisation to shine light and attention on interesting information that not everybody may have access to. For example, if somebody pitches you an idea and you are not sure you can do anything with it right now, share it with your networks and maybe somebody else will find resonance or relevance and pick it up. The simplest for of working out loud for leaders is more about acting as a re-broadcast station than it is about sharing your own original thoughts and ideas.

Narrating your work and feeding your network is a crucial skill for leadership in the agile era, but it is absolutely not the norm today. That needs to change, and it is a great testament to Bosch’s commitment to becoming a more agile company that they are planning to run organised WOL for teams and WOL for Leaders pilot programmes after the summer.

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> You may also be interested to read our research report on The Barriers to Digital Transformation which includes our latest thinking on organisational structures and agile attributes.