Use Working Out Loud to develop competencies for agile work
Working Out Loud – WOL: three letters, five core principles, twelve weeks. WOL is increasingly appearing in the context of new work and digital transformation. There is a large community of enthusiastic “WOLlies” and many companies that place great hope in this method. But what exactly is this and can Working Out Loud help on the way to becoming an agile organisation?
What is WOL and how does it work?
Four to five people meet once a week for one hour – digital or analogue – over a period of twelve weeks to help each other achieve individually set goals. Within these 12 weeks, they follow the so-called Circle-Guides¹, which are available free of charge in different languages. The method defines peer coaching in a “shelter” – the circle – in which learning is self-organised (with the support of others).
The 12 guides support step by step the achievement of the individual goals with the help of exercises and aim at a long-term change of attitude and behaviour. The goal itself is not so important, but rather serves as a kind of vehicle to “keep on task” over the 12 weeks and carry out the learning process. It can therefore also be adapted in the course of the process.
The techniques learned help to make one’s own work visible by building and using a reliable network. So much for theory.
The effect of WOL
Whenever we learn new things, especially when it comes to changing our behavior in the long run, we need practice and enough successful repetitions until the new behaviors are established and automated.
In a WOL-Circle, each participant in a WOL-Circle receives positive reinforcement and motivation to continue. In the ideal case WOL creates a basis for a lasting change in the behaviour of individuals. They learn networking (and what advantages networking brings them), collaboration and practice social learning (learning from others / learning together with others through peer coaching). This makes WOL a comparatively favourable personnel development measure (12 x 1 h corresponds to a training measure of approx. one and a half days, but WITHOUT organisation costs for driving or hotel accommodation).
In addition, WOL enables a better transition due to the self-initiated learning process and the associated (presumably) stronger contextual reference. In plain language this means: I learn the things that are really relevant to me and use them directly in my professional context if necessary.
Added to this is the multiplier effect of a grassroots movement, which is completely free of charge for the company: if you look into the relevant communities, the enthusiasm potential of the WOLlies is great. Many are quickly convinced of the method and intrinsically motivated to make this experience possible for their colleagues as well.
Both effects can lead to the formation of a new mindset for members of organisations, namely the recognition that “knowledge to share is power” and that the transfer of know-how is valued, at least within the circle and the WOL community.
WOL can change the communication culture in companies
The exercises at WOL usually aim at reflecting on one’s own communication behaviour or one’s own competence portfolio. The basis of the whole is respectful interaction with each other and appreciative communication, accompanied by empathy and (networked) swarm intelligence: The advantage: Circle members can work on new topics more quickly with the support of others. In the course of Circle participation, it is often even learned to communicate differently (across hierarchical boundaries) or to work together independently of departmental (silo) boundaries.
If the WOL community reaches a critical mass within a company or if opinion leaders accept this behaviour and practise it, this new communication behaviour can even change the corporate culture positively. At least if one follows Luhmann’s systems theory, which states that organisations consist of the communication of members and that corporate culture only emerges or changes ex post.
Security through structure and common basis
The Circle-Guides offer structure, safety and especially complexity reduction, just like the Scrum-Guide offers the Scrum-Team.
However, despite this structure, it is critical to ensure a common understanding.
From my experience, even in groups that all belong to the same profession, it is not automatically ensured that everyone means the same thing when they talk about a topic. In some cases, even a team of experts may understand and interpret a technical term differently.
WOL helps to practice, to put oneself in the perspective of the other and to achieve a common understanding, a common communicative basis. In addition, WOL as an individual learning process can help to strengthen employees’ ability to collaborate in an organisational context (in a private context, this has long been a matter of course for many). Because: Those who want to work agile tomorrow need not only (possibly digital) tools, but also the right mindset and the right skillset in the form of communication culture and employee behaviour. And it is precisely at this point that the WOL approach can help to create a basis for agile cooperation.
WOL’s five core principles related to agile collaboration
1. Generosity: At WOL, giving without expecting anything is written in capital letters. The entire WOL process is about mutual support and peer coaching. Once this has been learned and internalised, it may be easier for the Scrum team to establish the rule “we share our knowledge among ourselves” so that the team can move more quickly from the storming phase to the norming phase. (Here you can find a contribution to team building in Scrum.)
2. Goal Orientation/Discovery: As shown, the goal at WOL is relevant because this goal draws Circle participants through the entire process. The goal must always motivate them to continue and to work on themselves for 12 weeks (in a circle). The only (but theoretically very effective) consequence of not reaching the goal at WOL is that often another circle is aimed at and the self-organised learning process is repeated.
Equally important is the objective, e.g. in Scrum, to have created at least one functioning part of a complete product at the end of each sprint. Also this goal creates the motivation to work fast and concentrated. The consequence of not reaching the Scrum goal is that it will be reconsidered in the next iteration and a new goal category will be developed together in the team.
3. Visible work & transparency are indispensable for Scrum & Co. and also the cornerstone of WOL, after all it is about “working loudly”. Transparency is the prerequisite for continuous Inspect & Adapt. The required error culture and feedback competence can also be learned and practiced in the WOL process.
4. Lifelong learning/growth mindset: Each time WOL creates new points of contact for new knowledge structures and in this way promotes the positive experience of new experiences or the so-called “openness for something new”, which is relevant for the (positive) handling of change. In principle, however, agility means exactly that: to adjust to new circumstances again and again and to take a different path if necessary. “Openness for something new” is therefore relevant for the psychological balance of the team members.
5. A resilient network/relationship: Respect, openness and courage are not values of Scrum for nothing, they are particularly important in order to be able to take an agile attitude and internalise it. Without these basic values, successful cross-functional cooperation and collaboration at eye level becomes difficult.
These values are just as important for WOL, where it is determined at the outset that the contents of the circle should not be discussed with outsiders. It also takes courage to expand your network and possibly contact people you have only ever admired from afar.
WOL helps you to recognise how important it is to maintain relationships with customers, other stakeholders and team members. Without this constructive exchange, no empirically optimised, iterative process can develop. Even though techies may not consider a broad, reliable network to be necessary, thanks to WOL they can make the positive experience that the exchange with others can lead to new, innovative solutions, or possibly help to achieve good results even faster and more effectively in the next iteration.
Working Out Loud as competence development for agile working
“Sharing knowledge is power” is not only WOL’s guiding principle, but also, in my opinion, the implicit guiding principle of the agile manifesto: interaction and communication within the team and with customers is always more important than the process itself.
Open, respectful communication at eye level and a common understanding are indispensable, as is reflection on one’s own communication behaviour (including self-image and image of others). WOL helps to develop know-how and routines in this area and can thus support agile cooperation.
 The Circle-Guides can be downloaded free of charge from www.workingoutloud.com.
Barbara Hilgert has published further articles in the t2informatik Blog, including
Barbara Hilgert lives between Hamburg and Lübeck and works in Berlin. She is an agile coach, advises small and medium-sized companies on the topics of compatibility 4.0 and digital transformation and has a lot of know-how in the areas of team development and (New) Learning. “Sharing knowledge is power” is not only her life maxim, the development of this mindset is also the goal of her consultations and qualifications: Training is one of the core competencies for the future of work and an important prerequisite for collaborative networking and “new learning”.