The 5 elements of Working Out Loud

Working Out Loud

Working Out Loud

Recently, I was talking with my wife about Working Out Loud and the book that I’m publishing later this year. After a few minutes, she bluntly asked me:

“So, is it just blogging?”

Now, that’s one of those questions that could either lead to an argument or could lead to deeper reflection and new insights. I chose the deeper reflection and new insights.

My wife’s question made made me think that, despite writing about Working Out Loud for a few years, maybe I haven’t been clear enough about what it really is.

So here’s a broader definition that I hope you’ll find useful.

The original definition

When Bryce Williams first coined the term more than 3 years ago, he described it with a simple formula:

Working Out Loud = Observable Work + Narrating Your Work

Understandably, he focuses on publishing. And, looking back, I’ve also placed most of the emphasis on publishing. (My most popular post on working out loud uses “Your personal content strategy” as a subtitle.)

So I can understand my wife’s question. Simply using social platforms might be considered working out loud but it could completely miss the point. Working out loud is meant to be purposeful – to help you get things done and make work better. To be effective, you have to do more than just blog or tweet about what you’re working on.

A broader definition

So now, when someone asks me “What’s Working Out Loud”?, here’s what I say:

“Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that – when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”

It’s not as pithy as I’d like but it’s usually good enough to get people’s attention so I can follow up with examples or stories of people who do it well. There are 5 elements in this description I’d like to highlight.

Making your work visible: As Bryce described, this is indeed the fundamental starting point for working out loud.

Making work better: One of the main reasons for openly narrating your work is to find ways to improve it. You’re publishing so other people will see it, including some who can provide useful feedback, connections, or other things that will make your work better.

Leading with generosity: By framing your posts as contributions – as opposed to, say, efforts at self-promotion or personal branding – you’re more likely to engage other people. You’re not just looking for help but offering to help others, too. As Keith Ferrazzi said, “The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.”

Building a social network: As you work out loud over time, you’ll be interacting with a broader range of people. The further you develop relationships with people in your network, the more likely it will be that you’ll collaborate with them and that they’ll be willing help you in other ways.

Making it all purposeful: Finally, since there’s an infinite amount of  contributing and connecting you can do, you need to make it purposeful in order to be effective. (Goals might be as simple as “I want more recognition in my firm.” or “I’d like to explore opportunities in another industry or location.”) You can still have plenty of room for serendipity, but having a goal in mind focuses your learning, your publishing, and your connections.

What do you think?

Though the most important part of working out loud is actually doing it rather than wrangling over a definition, a part of changing how people work is making them aware there are better ways to begin with. And that includes a useful, easy-to-understand description of working out loud.

Many of you are experts on working out loud and have been doing it for years. How do you describe working out loud to people for the first time? What changes could we make to the description so we can help more people understand it and start practicing it?


About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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53 Responses to The 5 elements of Working Out Loud

  1. First things first: happy new year, John!
    We have a saying in Germany which is roughly translated with “do good and talk about it”. When I get asked about Working Out Loud, I compare it with the saying. It means letting the people know what I am doing. And making the link to other people’s work. So, it is not just putting my work out there but working on making it a benefit for others.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Barbara. You have such a beautiful spirit – online and in person – that working out loud comes naturally to you. I’m really looking forward to working with you this year.

  2. John Stepper says:

    Here’s a recent video from Change Agents World Wide on Working Out Loud. (They’re @chagww on Twitter.) It does a very good job showing both the process and the benefits. And it captures how WOL is about more than just publishing.

  3. Great summation as always, John. I think the only thing I’d make more clear (and something I’ve been wanting to write about in my next annual blog post 🙂 )…are the downstream benefits. The domino effects of having worked out loud. We’ve probably spent a lot on the point in time behaviors and benefits. But I think now we have an opportunity to highlight some examples and stories about how it impacts reuse, finding answers, supporting institutional learning, etc. I know the concepts are built in here. But I’m not sure if we’ve dedicated any deeper conversation to that benefit alone to the point it is really obvious to folks that haven’t experienced it yet.

    Not to mention the personal “deflection” savings.

    Thanks as always for furthering the discussion!

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks for this comment, Bryce. I’ve written up only a few individual stories and intend to write more (and include many more in the book):

      When you say “domino effects”, were you thinking more about aggregate benefits for firms? I’ve written up use cases (5 “value of collaboration” posts) but they’re not explicitly tied to working out loud. Would that be helpful? Would be fun to write a post you “commissioned”. 🙂

      • Sure John!

        Sort of the aggregate benefits I guess. I like to think of it as the “opportunity value” created by something that was shared openly vs. something captured in a more traditional sense. It may not always result in additional benefit at the point of sharing and the short-term interactions that result (although usually it does). But it also immediately increases the “opportunity value” of that info for the future because of the fact it resides in a more findable location that sticks around for a while…and what could come of that future opportunity.

        As I looked at the elements of your definitions, that was the piece I was missing when you were asking for what else the description could cover. It was the only real big benefit I could think of that didn’t jump out at me in what you’ve got in the definition…particularly thinking in terms of a reader that hasn’t experienced some of those benefits first hand as we have.

        I think in spots we’ve covered that potential and that it comes with the behavior change (some in the posts you referenced). I think what we could use more of are stories of larger process / organization impact because of decisions to shift that behavior. Such as the unplanned emergence of an invaluable knowledge base for a specific process, project, technology. Or the a discovery of something that unexpectedly saved money, triggered a big idea or product because it was shared openly. Those types of things. More real examples of wide scale organization impact because of an individual or team changing their behaviors to WOL more.

        I have a few of them here, but unfortunately those are tough for me to get approval to share many details about. And I wish I could do more or get more creative in how I do so. But thinking that stories like that could add to the arsenal of evidence that this is good for both personal productivity and exposure, but also the help we can easily provide to others…while sleeping….6 months later 🙂

        Another may be discussing WOL behaviors for how one goes about “seeking answers”…thus pulling from experts that don’t share as proactively, thus initiating shared knowledge as a result of our own daily seeking.

        Maybe, stealing from Dion Hinchcliffe’s and Peter Kim’s book “Social Business by Design”, an item in your definition somewhere could be “Creating Shared Value by Default”? Or something similar? Maybe it’s a sub-bullet to making work visible. But making work visible can contain motives beyond making it reusable for the greater benefit of others. Thus the delineation.

        Make sense? That went way longer than I intended!

      • John Stepper says:

        Great, Bryce. I really like the “creating shared value by default” and definitely see it as a benefit.

        These comments are forcing me to think more deeply about definition versus benefits versus “elements” (and whether that distinction matters at all).

        What I was going for with the 5 elements were the things you need to do to work out loud effectively. That’s different from, say, some of the results you might get.

        More refining to do for sure. Thank you!

      • Yeah, I started thinking the same thing between definition, benefit, etc while replying. Just didn’t take time to explore too deeply. But agreed! Thanks!

  4. Guy Lipman says:

    Great post, and I’m incredibly grateful for your modelling of WOL behaviour, and your support of others who are doing it (and I’d agree with Bryce that it has incredible domino effects).

    One additional aspect of WOL that I’d want a good definition to capture is the vulnerability it creates, not just to your work being criticised (for better or worse) but also to unpredictability in the results – e.g. it might be ignored, or it might get you a job offer (not easy for people that like to be independent and in control)! I certainly struggle with that aspect, and have to feel very secure in an environment before I’m comfortable working out loud.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Guy, and thank you very much. Want to suggest a sentence? 🙂

      I’ve written about the benefits of working out loud for introverts –

      Is there anything that that’s useful? Or is it that you want to acknowledge that posting inevitably brings certain kinds of risks in addition to the benefits?

      • Guy Lipman says:

        To my mind, it isn’t just introverts – and indeed some extroverts are even more nervous about what other people think of their contributions (and hence them) than introverts. But that post does have a lot of useful stuff, particularly that it’s not about you, and the importance of creating a safe place (I certainly would have had a lot more trouble getting started without the positive reinforcement of myDB).

        My definition of Working Out Loud would be:
        Purposefully sharing your work and thought process, in a generous spirit, allowing others to learn from it and help themselves, you and the organisation, often in unexpected ways.

      • John Stepper says:

        That’s really helpful. Thanks, Guy.

  5. Happy new year!

    First of all: please keep on writing inspiring blogs! 😉

    How I shifted into a “working out loud”-mode? I am constantly questioning my communication, especially my eMail individual eMail culture like “Is this of value only for the recipient?” or “Is this the first time I’ve been asked this question”. This leads to more and more of my conversations be ‘shifted’ to our internal ESN.

    A first success in 2013: After starting “working out loud” about my zero mail initiative more and more colleagues apologizing when sending me eMails. I actually receive less eMails overall.

    Still there is a lot to do, since I perceive only few colleageus so far are actually adopting “working out loud”. But there must be something left for 2014, don’t you think?

    Looking forward to future blogs and to your book!

    still wearing pink shirts on Thursdays! 😉

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Rainer. You’ve been so generous & supportive – always retweeting and providing feedback. I really appreciate it.

      I like how you focused on a particular behavior like your use of email. One of the things we spend a fair amount of time on in the coaching program is crafting messages carefully – both to lead with generosity as well as empathy. Why should the reader care? Dale Carnegie wrote about the art of writing letters in “How to Win Friend and Influence People” and his advice has proved timeless.

      And thank you also for the pink shirt reference. I still wear them, too. For those who read this and don’t know what we’re talking about, here’s the story:

  6. I like your expanded definition, John. For some, it might just be a mental switch, an “Aha” moment.. like in this visual –

  7. Personally, I am also looking for examples of how WOL has “upstream” benefits. Being able to influence decision makers by the sheer volume of conversations, actions, insights collected, refined, and shared. I think within many large companies, the “glass ceiling” as I like to call it between leadership and employees is still too thick to have real change in how we work. So for now the WOL benefits are still the most prevalent at the mid and lower hierarchies of companies. For some reason however, I am thinking that will change soon. Looking at what Zappos did by a massive flattening of their organization structure could provide great opportunity for high-impact WOL examples.

    • John Stepper says:

      Great comment, Richard. Thanks. I agree that the upstream or firm-wide benefits are lagging the benefits for individuals. But I have some stories I’ll write up in the future.

      I’m not nearly as optimistic as you that other companies will be more Zappos-like or Gore-like or Whole Foods-like.It seems to me the longer a company has been around, the more resilient the corporate machine (structure, systems, culture) is to preserving itself.

      TL;DR: we have a lot of work to do and it’s going to take a long time. 🙂

  8. Stavros Vogiatzis says:

    “How do you describe working out loud to people for the first time?”

    I would change the term WOL to Think Out Loud, people are very sensitive / sensible when using the word work. Work is a very broad term that includes dozens of different definitions and descriptions, possibly confusing people to choose between collaboration, day to day tasks, email management, reporting, knowledge sharing, corporate relations, client relations etc.

    We need to encourage and teach people to express themselves in a more open and free manner by Thinking Out Load, to share ideas, opinions and experiences within and outside the enterprise. TOL is more specific and easier term to be adopted by people for the first time. In no time everyone will be headed towards the broader Work Out Load situation. Many successful authors say “we need to change the way we think and do work”, so there you have it, first comes the word think and then work. TOL can be a kick-starter. All I want to say is that the word work might be a bit heavy to start with.

    I agree 100% with all the theories and practices behind the WOL, everyday people need to start slow with “softer” terminologies that they can understand and interpret.

    Have a great 2014 John! Thank you for all your time.
    Stavros V.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Stavros, and Happy New Year. I’ve tried a variety of words, phrases, and incantations with mixed results. While you, for example, appreciate the “more open and free manner” of Thinking Out Loud, others want just the opposite – i.e., more structure and more clearly relevant to their job. Over time, I’ve tried to tweak my messages to my audience. Hopefully, “Working Out Loud” won’t scare too many away. 🙂

  9. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Great blog as always John – and a wonderful note to start 2014 on! Thank you.

    I rarely use the term “WOL” – mainly because I’ve noticed a small but perceptible cultural “shudder” with the uninitiated in the UK when I have raised the subject using those very words. The mere notion of putting yourself on an exposed and public pedestal is not for everyone (introvert, extrovert or merely British) and a mistaken view that you are not working, but somehow shouting “out loud” about your own attributes in a literary way!
    But that would be to misinterpret what it means of course. And I put that down to a different interpretation of “out loud” this side of the Atlantic!
    Hence I use it sparingly.
    However if I speak about it in terms of “sharing what you do in a transparent and purposeful way to make your work more effective, meaningful and connected to your community “– then the conversation starts rolling …
    A question of semantics – which as you say we shouldn’t get bogged down with– but rather focus on the “doing”. Nevertheless it can be crucial when it comes to engagement!

    I find it interesting in this fascinating thread – that there appears little difference between WOL within your own organisation (via social platforms) and within the wider digital world – indeed they are referred to interchangeably by and large. The “elements” might be the same – but to me they are as different as loud and quiet – big fish and small fish in different sized waters. Perfecting your technique in the former does not necessarily mean you can – or will – transfer it outside of the organisation? The requirements appear different?

    Thank you

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Marie-Louise. Now I’m trying to picture “Sharing What You Do in a Transparent and Purposeful Way to Make Your Work More Effective, Meaningful and Connected to Your Community” on the book jacket… 🙂

      Working in a global firm, I’ve heard this a lot. Not just about the term “Working Out Loud” but about making yourself visible. “I don’t like to toot my own horn.” Those same people, however, change their view once they change their mindset from promotion to contribution. Helping others is something that’s universal, it seems. (Now communicating that in a title or even in a book remains a challenge.)

      As for using internal and external social platforms, they are quite different. And yet I’ve found using the internal corporate tools provide a more closed, more clearly purposeful way to experiment and develop the 5 elements in the post.

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  11. John Stepper says:

    Here’s a pithier version of the definition that I’m using now:
    “Working Out Loud: working in a more open, generous, connected way that enables you to build a purposeful network, one that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”

    As Bryce suggests in the comments, there’ll be a host of benefits of working this way that merit their own treatment.

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  20. Hi John, so happy to stumble across this article and your thinking. We’re actually building a platform that enables people to ‘work out loud’. It’s called Somewhere. Check out Stowe Boyd’s deconstruction here:

    Let’s arrange to chat. There’s too much alignment of vision not to ;).

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