A “working out loud” credo

photo by John Wenger
photo by John Wenger

I love the “working out loud” approach.  It’s highly social, which now, after years of personal work, runs through me like a stick of rock.  In that (ongoing) personal journey, I have learnt not only the benefits and indescribable joys (and sometimes, the excruciating pain) of joining the rest of the human race, but also how to do it.  WOL also gives us the opportunity to exercise our opposable minds with each other. This is our ability to hold seemingly contradictory or conflicting ideas in a creative tension so that we come up with novel solutions or insights.  The idea that we can co-create something that neither of us could have worked out individually is highly appealing to me.  The challenges before us, many of which seem intractable, are products of old ways of thinking and being.  One of my things is that the new solutions will come out of collaboration, learning together and co-creation.  That, for me, is one of the strongest “selling points” in WOL: I can’t solve it myself, neither can you, but together we might synthesise a wondrous future.

So how’s this for working out loud….

I hate feedback.

Feedback, as I learnt from one of my greatest teachers, is that dissonant screech you get coming through a speaker system.  In my time, I have trained in a myriad of personal and professional development settings, via a variety of modalities, methods and processes.  I always looked forward to (and still do) the “feedback-y” bits of those.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I hate feedback.  I love supervision.  Super.  Vision.

The thing I enjoy is the learning; the “supervisory” conversations with others who hold my learning and development in mind and who have super vision, i.e. see things I don’t see.  In these conversations, I would receive information about myself and how I function in the world, have the opportunity to integrate it into my self-concept and update my knowledge and capabilities.  This would uncover blindspots, help me to see things about myself I couldn’t possibly see on my own and expand my self-awareness.  Purpose: self development.

There is, I believe, a cultural conserve around “feedback”.  In a lot of situations, feedback comes across exactly like a dissonant racket and is welcomed with just as much openness and delight as you would expect such a screech to invite.  I believe this is related to our cultural conserve of “feedback” and how it’s done.  It tends to be (mostly) one-way: one person giving feedback to another.  Rather than a mutual and engaging conversation, it gets structured into a “three positive things, three negative things, and one more positive thing to finish on so that we can end on a positive note” type of ritual.  It also tends not to be strengths-based.  Hang on a sec, didn’t I just say it starts with “three positive things”?  Yes, but that is not strengths-based.  Telling someone something “negative”, no matter how it’s dressed up, is not strengths-based.

Taking a strengths-based approach

I believe there is an entirely different way of looking at this, which is to view humans as inherently good and their behaviours as inherently meaningful and sensible.  We may not see the good, nor understand the meaning and sense of why people do what they do, but let’s just imagine it is so.  If we start with this assumption, then instead of giving “feedback”, let’s look at what people have done and build on it.  If we see learning as a process rather than an event…..as a constant becoming….then everything we do is the starting point for the next thing to learn.  Beings in beta, always refining and retuning and building on.

“What a bunch of new age, PC nonsense!  It’s this sort of thinking that is driving this business to the wall!”

Well, perhaps……However, to fail to recognise strengths is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.  It is demoralising and demotivating.  Even in our worst ever moments, there is the seed of something useful, life-giving and good.  As Dr. Max Clayton states, “…there tends to be an over-emphasis on the inadequacies of people….When people become aware of what is (good) in their functioning,…problematic areas of their life become easier to manage.”  If we want people to really learn and to really change, this is what we want: that they are able to self-manage and that they find it easy to do.

What does this have to do with working out loud?

Working out loud is part of the “new way of doing things” (#nwodt, just to give myself a bit of hashtag license).  When I do my work on Twitter, blogs or Google+, then what I’m working on there is open.  When I’m working in a room with people, I employ a human technology that works with what is emergent, so I’m also working out in the open; to a very great extent, what happens next is dependent on what has just happened.  I’m working out loud.  If I’m working out in the open, I’m exposing myself and am vulnerable.  What might stop people from doing this?  When I put something in the public domain, I am taking a risk.  As Eric Ziegler writes, “people are scared of putting themselves out there and working out loud. They are fearful that there will be negative repercussions when they make a mistake out in the open. They are fearful that people will think less of them. They are not willing to risk sharing because there is no benefit or that other people will not find what they are sharing as interesting or informative.”  All very human.

Seems to me that our limbic systems come into play here just a little bit.  These alarm systems that sit right within our brains don’t like danger.  They also don’t like perceived danger.  The thing about our limbic system is that it doesn’t know the difference between real danger and perceived danger; it’s all just danger.  Like a gazelle in the open savannah, when we are exposed and there is a potential for attack, we are in a heightened state of vigilance, which could explain the reluctance of many to work out loud.  Yes, there are clearly benefits to working out loud, however the cultural conserve of “feedback” leads many not to.

I understand these reservations.  I have felt the things that Eric describes as fear-inducing  and I know how it feels.  Not good.  That is kind of irrelevant.  I’ve had some amazing supervision sessions with some great teachers in my time and I haven’t felt ‘great’, but those conversations have certainly taught me invaluable stuff.  I will add: after all the many years of aforementioned ‘personal work’, I have a pretty solid sense of self-worth and I certainly welcome conversation, questions, something that would expand my (and your) knowledge.   I also bounce back quickly.  This is not to say, however, that to have my thoughts and perspectives dismissed in three or four sentences of “feedback” by people with substantial prestige, status and influence doesn’t sting.  And as I say, I don’t mind not feeling great; I do mind not having the engagement that leads to all involved becoming greater.  Where is the interaction?  Where is the engagement with me?  Where is the responsiveness to me and the perspectives I hold?  A terse, un-engaged dismissal, phrased using language of the “old way of doing things” has wrapped within it an assumption, conscious or unconscious, that my experiences hold little value, my synthesis and meaning made of said experiences erroneous and the thought processes used faulty.  If we work out loud, allowing our works-in-progress to be spotlit, and they are treated like a critic treats a theatre performance, scrutinised from another subjective perspective using language of definitiveness, we will understandably think twice about making a new habit.  If we work out loud and someone comes along and infers (using the most educated and authoritative language) “Idiot”, and does it in a way which shows no curiosity or interest in where we are coming from, we all lose out.  We have the technology, we are all right here.

For me, part of the “old way of doing things” means that we take up an either/or stance.  This is part of the whole “feedback” cultural conserve.  I see what you have written and if I like it or agree with it, I might share it.  And if I don’t like it or don’t agree with it, rather than simply saying nothing, I feel somehow moved to explain why I don’t agree and why you are wrong.  Limiting.  When I’ve had a simple “I don’t agree and this why you are wrong….” as a response, I am left thinking, “So where is the learning?  For me and for you?”  Missed opportunity.  If you have some super vision that I am blind to, the absence of engagement leaves us both poorer for it.  If there is some engagement, we might both come out better for it, our world views expanded.

Part of the #nwodt was described over 20 years ago by the venerable Mr. Edward de Bono in his book “I Am Right, You Are Wrong” when he set out some differences between the “rock logic” of traditional thinking (absolutes, adversarial point scoring, rigid categories, either/or) and the “water logic” of perception (both/and, constructive and creative thinking).

So, I accept the challenge, I will continue to work out loud, I will allow myself to be vulnerable.  In response, I request curiosity, responsiveness and a spirit of “building on”.  Please engage with me.  As a person.  A human person.  And if you find yourself moved to say something which is more about being right or showing how much smarter you are or how much dumber I am, please refrain.  (…and I realise that I am coaching myself here, as much as anyone else.)

My WOL credo

My understanding of working out loud is that I show my work and invite engagement so that we all might learn from it.  Working out loud is more than ‘stuff I do in public’, though.  Like many #nwodt, it’s got a bunch of assumptions that go with it.  Here are some of mine.

  • I believe that it is social.  With my background, that means that it is mutual and two-way.  Central to this, I try to become aware of any power differential: “power” being my status, my network connections, the ‘clubs’ I belong to or don’t, the influence I am able to exert……. So I commit to being more mindful of how I engage.
  • I believe that effective working out loud starts with the belief: “I don’t have all the answers.”  I believe that WOL requires a modicum of giving people some credit for having had some experience in life and having made some meaning of it.  So I commit to being more mindful of what I don’t know about others.
  • I believe it requires enough self-awareness to know that we all have blind spots.  This simply means we understand that we have them, not that we know what they are….they are called BLIND for a reason.  So I commit to being more mindful of the unknown unknowns: mind AND yours.
  • I believe that there is something in people who work well and comfortably out loud that acknowledges self-deception.  As David McRaney writes in his post about the illusion of asymmetric insight, the misconception we hold about ourselves is that we celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.  The reality that our behaviour belies is that we are driven to believe others are wrong simply because they are “others” and they couldn’t possibly be as self-aware/clever/educated/experienced/skilful as us.  So I commit to being more mindful of the lies I tell myself.
  • I believe that to in order for me to work out loud, I will value community and learning over the need to be right.  When I’m in a learning mood, I find myself asking genuinely naive and curious questions, being aware of stuff I don’t actually know and that someone else does know stuff that I don’t.  So I commit to being more mindful of my internal voices.
  • I believe it’s useful to notice what state I am in and to consciously warm up to being in the role of Open Receptive Learner.  It’s not necessarily our default, considering the kind of schooling institutions and workplaces most of us have been predominantly exposed to.  So I commit to being more mindful of the Role I’m enacting.

Some of the most inspiring and lucid out-loud-thinkers that I’ve come across include Dan Oestreich, Louise Altman and Bob Marshall.  Read Dan’s work to see how beautifully and humanly he describes the challenges he faces in his work as a coach to others.  Read Louise’s work to see how deeply she cares about humanity and the lengths she goes to learn and learn and learn about herself in relation to others.  Read Bob’s work to see how he bares open his thought processes as he extends his revolutionary method of working to make work work better.

This bit of working out loud about working out loud has clarified some things for me….but at this stage, it’s still just me on my own.  Responses?

17 thoughts on “A “working out loud” credo

  1. Hi John,

    So I get to the end of this wonderful journey you’ve taken on us in this juicy piece and what do I discover? – a lovely, thoughtful and very much appreciated comment on my work. I am humbled – an overused word in the world of social media etiquette, I know, but appropriate to how I feel in response to your kind recognition.

    As for the WOL credo, I’m in. And what a posse to keep company with!

    What you’ve triggered for me here in this “manifesto” is how radical and potentially transformative the concept of WOL can be. It upends traditional power arrangements which are often based on our fears of being “found out” to be imposters. When personas are the norm, we’re always on alert of threats to the status quo.

    I think you get to the heart of the matter when you write:

    ” I believe there is an entirely different way of looking at this, which is to view humans as inherently good and their behaviours as inherently meaningful and sensible. We may not see the good, nor understand the meaning and sense of why people do what they do, but let’s just imagine it is so.”

    I particularly love this idea. It is precisely the opposite of a system where people must constantly prove their worth. Especially in traditional organizations (which are most) where the meaning is dictated in overt and covert practices. This of course is another revolutionary idea because essentially we are talking here about unconditional value, unconditional trust, unconditional compassion, unconditional love – which is constantly reduced, marginalized and ridiculed as PC, New Agey nonsense, as you say.

    Wonderful and rich content. Such a joy to read.

    Very warm regards,

    1. Dear Louise, thanks for adding in and working out loud with me. The imposter syndrome you mention one I’m familiar with. I saw this article today http://www.theguardian.com/news/oliver-burkeman-s-blog/2014/may/21/everyone-is-totally-just-winging-it about how everyone is really just winging it. Nice to read that we are all human and in a lot of our situations, making it up as we go along. What it says to me is that we are living in a time where we do have to learn the capacity to deal with the emergent. We can’t keep up the facade of knowing exactly what to do next, and working out loud, especially in concert with others, is one of these capacities. The phrase you use ‘prove one’s worth’ is the one I find myself returning to when I think of what goes on in most organisations, still. If I think about the prospect of working in an organisation like that, my gut wrenches.

      Anyway, in that moment just before I hit ‘publish’ on an article, or ‘send’ on a tweet, there is still something very old within me that says “nobody will read this/understand this/find value in this” or “just you wait till they start critique-ing this, they’ll show you where you went wrong”. I suppose it’s keeping hold of the trust that there are enough ‘others’ who will be encouraging, you being one of those others, of course. In any case, that old voice gets quieter as I get older because with time, I’ve been building networks of people who are willing to be vulnerable with me, work out loud and engage with me. This is where the revolution will gather pace in organisations, I reckon. People waking up to their networks and seeing the unconditionals you list. Warmly, John

  2. I think there would be a lot of practical promise in melding into WOL practice the core tenets of Appreciative Enquiry. Typing or other gesture-based input into a space where people are WOL gives you the momentary trigger and moment of time to make sure that whatever you ‘say out loud’ has an practical appreciative slant and impact.

    1. Indeed, good point Jon. Thanks for adding in. Not too dissimilar to the strengths-based work-frame I have learnt via Role Training. Can, in fact, be good rehearsal for doing in real time/spontaneously…. or even the old ‘write drunk, edit sober’ maxim 🙂

  3. Great work thank-you John. I was directed here by my friend Simon Terry, and found you thrashing around with some stuff I am thrashing around with too.

    I am figuring out how to get people to do a better job as line managers. I love your feedback stuff, and am now thinking about ‘feedforward through strengths-based conversations’ or something. I’m not sure they or I am ready to work-out-loud, but we are certainly heading in that direction.

    By the way, I wonder whether this kind of approach needs some sort of Wiki-type space that works like Onenote or Evernote (both of which I love in principle, but have not warmed to, if that makes sense) or some other more collaborative space.


    1. Thanks for adding in Geoff. With the ‘getting people to do a better job’ thing, I would love to be part of conversations that unfold around that. There are (at least) considerations of 1)capabilities of managers and 2)the system. A very interesting conversation awaits us. With regards ‘wiki’, I have to admit and am not ashamed to say I don’t actually know what a wiki is. I hear the word in conversation and it’s like people have begun to speak a foreign language. 🙂

  4. Thank you for this. It really resonates. I am currently thinking through a difficult situation with a project and this really hit many of the nails on the head!
    We have been collaboratively working using Structured Visual Thinking with John Caswell for many years and your thinking here adds. I will be sharing your post with our team. Thanks again

    1. Hi Nigel, thanks for commenting and I’m glad you have found this of some value. I’m curious about the difficult situation you mention and which nails have been hit on the head…perhaps we connect on Google+ or something?

  5. This is good stuff, John. I know it’s gravitating around WOL. But, the change people need to go through in order to reach a solid level is quite significant.
    In a world where we focus so much on platforms, business goals, communities (as a means to an end), and statistics, we sometimes tend to forget it’s the humans that need to actually do this.
    WOL brings the humanity back in the change processes driven by Social Business.

    1. I’m with you there Rogier re: that change. There is a set of assumptions, capabilities, …. that we all need to adopt for it to be an effective approach, rather than simply “a thing we do”. There is more to it than that.

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