Working Out Loud – the ultimate change method or just a group therapy? Recap of #wolweek discussions.

Working Out Loud (or short WOL) is very en vogue in recent discussions about the digital transformation of the workplace. It’s nothing new as the term has been brought up by Bryce Williams in a blog post in 2010. And even before “the importance of narrating your work as a way to develop shared awareness and a culture of collaboration in the workplace” was key to the early days of social media and blogging – as Lee Bryant wrote in a post last year. But it wasn’t before John Stepper formalized and conceptionalized the approach in his book – as a methodology of learning from the benefits of networking and self-reflecting within a group of peers to change individual behavior – that WOL received wider attention.

In many discussions the WOL approach has been promoted as the new “saviour” amongst the change approaches – especially for the context of the digital transformation. Certainly the priniples of WOL – including the fostering of relationships, the efforts for purposeful discovery or the visibility of work – have a transformative effect on the individual and therefore also on the organization. But the question is whether the transformative impact of the change efforts on the individual level lead to overall changes in mindset, organizational behavior and culture needed for the digital transformation journey?

To discuss this question we approached our Enterprise Digital SUMMIT community on Slack as well as the community related to our German IOM SUMMIT during the #wolweek and collected some interesting answers from people who have experimented with this approach.

Working out loud impacts the organisation through its effect on individuals – but needs an foundation of trust and openness to lead to sustainable change!

In a first step we ask the #EntDigit SUMMIT community about the importance and scope of the Working Out Loud approach for the digital transformation. Is it the ultimate change method or just another tool for the digital enablement?

Cerys Hearsey, Postshift (@ceryshearsey):

I tend to lean towards the second – another tool for the toolbox – a great starting point for an individual looking to explore & transform, but not enough in and of itself. I have two core reasons for this based on working with clients using the techniques over the last x years:

1 – WOL as it is practiced through the circle structure is an individualised change approach – popular because it addresses the ‘whats in it for me?’ question very easily. More powerful would be a team working out loud together to achieve a common goal, or a leader working out loud for the good of their division, fellow leaders and org at large – adding business value to WOL is the game changer (I am aware orgs are playing with these types of variants, but there is a long way to go)

2 – WOL is just one tool in the box – no technique suits everyone equally well, and not everyone practices WOL in the same way – it mixes and matches well with other techniques such as continuous improvement from LEAN or agile project work/daily stand ups. It is currently working for the 5-10% of the org who are willing to put in the time to transform themselves, when we reach those who are resistant, new techniques will be needed.

John Glover, kahootz (@kahootz):

It is certainly transformational but not always liked during tranformation of a business or service as staffers like to explore ideas without having to be held to account or listened in on by the Unions as staff positions are likely to be impacted at some time.

Jon Ingham, Author & Strategic HR Advisor (@joningham):

Digital isn’t a simple change, and so it doesn’t come with a simple solution. I completely support each of John Stepper’s five elements, and the application of an action learning approach in the use of his circles. I think what’s most important is understanding each of these ideas. You can then develop a bespoke approach for your own digital change. To me, that’s always going to work better than implementing an off-the-peg methodology. I also think an ‘ultimate change method’, if there was one, would focus on the whole organisation, not just impact the organisation through its effect on individuals.

David Terrar, Agile Elephant (@dt):

I don’t believe it’s the ultimate change method. I do believe it can be a great approach if the org culture supports it, but it’s just one of many tools and behaviours to be deployed or discussed. For most orgs there are a lot more steps towards better digital literacy for their people that need to be addressed before considering WOL. In any case the transformation needs to be considered end to end across the business in terms of value creation and purpose first.

Lesley Crook, WOLAN (@lesley_wolan):

And… I agree with all of the above. I am also an advocate of Lean and Agile tools & methodologies which are part of digital transformation. I have written a paper “Lean & ESN & WOL & digital transformation” which is not published if anyone is interested in reading it and giving me feedback before we meet in November – not sure what to do with it to be honest? I would not call #WOL a tool but a cognitive “behaviour” of feelings and thoughts. John Stepper would say its about building deeper relationships within a small peer group, being open to networking and generously sharing your work like we are doing here, making work visible, having a purposeful goal and a growth mindset. My USP focuses on making Working Out Loud IN A Network #wolan where you can expand an scale up these beautiful principles by aligning your network to strategic goals, and the appropriate behaviours & values of a company. Using business intelligent hashtags in an employee post can help elevate what’s important.

Jane McConnell, NetStrategy/JMC (@netjmc):

Working out loud is not the ultimate change method, nothing is, but it is a very powerful one for organizations, and goes way beyond the individual. I wrote about it in a blog post for the Peter Drucker European Blog ( I saw that working out loud was more practiced in organizations that self-assessed as “entrepreneurial” – along with other practices, all of which involve openness to the whole organization. Maybe the key is openness more than working out loud, and working out loud is one of the manifestations.

Working Out Loud promotes self-reflection, networking and cooperation – in a standardized and effective manner

In second round we asked our German community (related to the IOM SUMMIT) in a more heretical way whether WOL isn’t just another form of group therapy for finding new purpose in the work life. The answers (in the following translated literally) brought up some key building blocks that make the WOL approach so effective.

Joachim Haydecker, Digital Transformation Consultant (@yolante):

A lot of individuals are building their networks within the company with the objective to move forward. Supported by a group or alone. If many people are reflecting their doing, then they will change – and change their environment. So there is nothing more to miss out, isn’t there?

For me, my past and running WOL Circles are an enrichment because I can exchange with mostly unknown people over weeks. Being open to others in a protected space is for me personally a great profit. For me, WOL belongs to the open, communicative formats as well as barcamps: open, trustworthy exchange in a protected area with clear, but not restrictive playing rules.

The objective to take part in a WOL circle should be to evolve. And since it is about people, there is no 0 and 1, no black or white.

Who makes WOL Circle: 1-9-90 rule. I have no proof of this, but if it goes well, you reach people to place 15: wink:

I can only recommend the doubters to admit it. It’s like the first BarCamp visit: Something’s going to happen, that’s guaranteed. But what can not be foreseen before.

Peter Schütt, IBM (@schu):

I have once commented about WOL as the “Weight Watchers for Knowledge Workers”. John Steppers response was: “Tweet of the Month!”

Alexander Kluge, Kluge Consulting (@alecmxint):

I would like to agree with Joachim Haydecker at one point: Yes, it’s a kind of a group therapy – but what’s the problem with it? It is a standardized peer coaching approach to reflect the purpose at work. It promotes self-reflection, networking and open and transparent cooperation. No miracle, as is often praised at the moment. But an approach that can change our highly-nourish organizations. Siegfried Lautenbacher recently diagnosed quite correctly that it would be more advisable in the current state of our work (hattip to Gallup) if we would bring more psychologists into the enterprises. A peer coaching approach like #WOL is a first step that does not hurt and allows the low level entry into this therapy.

Harald Schirmer, Continental (@haraldschirmer):

I understand somehow both sides – it is certainly not the miracle solution, but who knows any better? That is immediately usable, digital enhanced, and nurturing cross-organizational experiences?

In many ways it depends first and foremost on what attitude and what expectations the participants of WOL have at the start. I see great people in my company that are enabling changes – #WOL provides more structure and security to these initiatives, as well as to the self-perception of serving something bigger. #globalMovement

Claudia Meyer, Siemens (@CL_MA):

WOL works in my opinion very well for those cases where not-connected people are coming together in order to extend their networks – in the form of the circle (for this the P2P coaching approach is important with regard to the personal goal setting). On the other hand, the “Circle Guides” have the task to expand the network with a sense of purpose. In the adaptation of the current Circle Guides for Siemens and Siemens Healthcareers, we also recommend using Siemens Social Network and give specific tips.

At the same time, we achieve a better use of the Siemens Social Network.

WOL at Siemens and Siemens Healthcareers is deliberately used in the business context, and therefore usually during working hours.

Sabine Kluge, Siemens (@netzabine):

Those who have once participated in a circle will experience that it is not about the reaching of the goal (its achievement is in my opinion a byproduct), but the remembrance of something that they were used to as small children. That got lost in the struggle for competition in school and enterprise: the primal human ability to share! Anyone who has read John Stepper’s book should also read Adam Grant. The latter for the “What”, and John Stepper for the “how”.

And when you have gone through a circle, you will evaluate relationships differently – on the net and offline. And when the employees change, the organization changes. This is exactly the opportunity for companies, because then they can resolve those organizational silos and the people bring their full potential to the table. And this is not (only) theory …

One could also say that the sense of “self-responsibility” and “willingness to share” are revived. Sounds very psychological, but is very attractive for companies because at the end it increases employee satisfaction – which has a beneficial impact on the performance. Furthermore both senses help people to become agile again. From psychology we know that from the age of 12 onwards, we are hardly able to develop the ability to change … and that is exactly what we need in companies.

And in addition to what was previously said, I want to underline this again: Whether WOL is the only medium – we will see. It touches and changes the people in a self-controlled way, and I have experiences nothing like this with any other approach.

This wrap-up would not be complete if we would not include a word of John Stepper – therefore we want to link to this great TEDx video recording of talk of him about Working Out Loud and recommend the approach as a great source of inspiration for individuals and done in a organized manner as an enabler for change within an organization:

Ending this recap – we want to say thank you to all the great answers and discussions in our communities.

Promotional hint at the end: If you like to further discuss the use of the approach as a change approach for corporate behavior – then we recommend to take part either in our German IOM SUMMIT in Cologne on September 19 & 20 or the London edition of Enterprise Digital SUMMIT 2017 on November 16.