Work Out Loud Circles – Do they Bridge the Gap?

In celebration of Work Out Loud (WOL) week, we want to highlight the role WOL circles can play as a bridge between our world of exploration, discovery and innovation, and the one that occupies most of our time; the day to day tasks.

In networking parlance, we use the terms ‘closed strong tie’ networks to represent our day to day collaborators, where interactions are frequent; and ‘open weak tie’ networks, where interactions are less frequent, but usually more considered. Open and closed networks are often positioned as a trade-off. In academic circles, the tensions between ‘explore’ and ‘exploit’ have also been positioned as a trade-off. The explore/exploit dichotomy has long roots. Nobel Prize Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote about thinking fast and thinking slow; distinguishing between our close to spontaneous (fast) thought processes and our more well considered (slow) ones.

A more practical context can be found in collaboration software. Enterprise Social Networking Software is regularly positioned as an ‘explore’ option, while chat-based team collaboration software is positioned as the ‘doing’ or ‘exploit’ option. At the recent Microsoft Ignite conference their Yammer (explore) and Teams (exploit) offerings were being labelled as ‘outer loop’ and ‘inner loop’. For some this was a great comfort for understanding when to use what. But life is never that simple!

While all of the above are positioned as a trade-off, or choice, the inevitable conclusion was that you had to do both; with the trade-off dictating your preferred leaning, one way or the other. Our preferred position is to think of it not as a trade-off, but a flow between explore and exploit. We have previously written about our 3E’s of innovation model  (Explore/Engage/Exploit), which acknowledges the invention phase of innovation is exploratory and will need the involvement of open and diverse networks, but also the focus of closed and cohesive networks if good ideas are to be implemented. Importantly, however, we have inserted an ‘Engage’ phase where the open and closed networks have to come together to facilitate the transition from explore to exploit. This is the ‘bridge’ where we see WOL circles playing an important role.

Working Out Loud Circles

WOL circles have been described in the WOL guidebook as: You can think of your WOL Circle as a kind of “guided mastery” program for collaboration and relationship-building.” On the question of what makes a good WOL circle the response is:

“Some of the most interesting and effective Circles are when people have different backgrounds and goals, and when they’re not competing in any way. That tends to bring different perspectives and insights to the exercises, enabling the group to learn more.”

In other words, an open explore type network. However, in the context of inside an organisation, each circle member will also be a member of a closed exploit network i.e. their team back in their local business unit. If any organisational value – beyond personal learning – is to be generated through a WOL circle, it can only happen when circle members ‘engage’ with their home team members to exploit what they have discovered in their WOL circles. The WOL guide talks about creating your ‘relationship list’. The relationships forged inside the WOL circle and beyond need to be transitioned into your home team exploit network, so don’t forget them on your relationship list! You, the WOL circle member, have to be the broker or the bridge.

Scaling up

Just imagine what your organisation might look like if everyone participated in open WOL circles, whose members bridged into their closed day to day work teams? Can you see your traditional organisation chart in there? Has the hierarchy disappeared? Have we created a wirearchy or a holocracy? Are WOL circles the road to a whole new way of working? A way that is both adaptive, yet robust? A way that all employees can feel they are contributing and being valued for their contributions?

As WOL proponents, the answer would be yes, yes, yes! But only if we can create the right bridges.

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