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Bridging the Gap: How OKRs help to make impact with “Working Out Loud”

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If you are following leading HR executives and influencers in social media, you might currently feel like “Working Out Loud” (WOL) is “the new thing” for the digital transformation in corporate Germany. From Bosch to Siemens, from BMW to Continental – everywhere groups of people gather for WOL circles and promote the idea within their companies.

When I heard about WOL for the first time it sounded very familiar. A small interdisciplinary group of people coming together to work on a shared set of goals for about 3 months, based on a clear set of principles – that is pretty much what we at Workpath believe is the essence of successful collaboration in an agile network of autonomous and self-organized teams.

Working Out Loud – Why it matters

In order to learn more about WOL I started talking with some of Germany’s WOL pioneers. Sabine Kluge (Siemens) explained to me that the WOL Community of Practice primarily considers the framework as a way to learn the required networking skills for an agile work environment. She illustrated how WOL loosens up the deeply rooted thinking patterns of hierarchical decision-making and isolated silos. It encourages fearless initiatives and the transparent sharing of learnings and of work in progress. Quoting Bruce Williams, she explained why in complex markets and agile teams, you can not think in perfectly finished products anymore, but rather in a constant process of iteration and adaptation. This new working mode requires people to experiment more while sharing learnings and updates about their work in progress and being less afraid of failure.

While he didn’t fully agree on the parallels between WOL and other agile frameworks (like Objectives and Key Results) I observed, Sebastian Hollmann (Continental, HRStrategieBlog) helped me to better understand the focus of WOL by emphasizing its core values, like generosity, and why they are so important. What all of my dialog partners seemed to agree on though, was that WOL can be seen as the training program for the digital transformation. However, most of them also agreed that the search for tangible business cases where WOL and its principles can be applied remains open. When sharing my thoughts and observations with Ragnar Heil, one of the first WOL practitioners in Germany, he encouraged us to pursue the idea and start a discussion around the topic.

Why Working Out Loud is so exciting for us at Workpath

When we founded Workpath, we made it our mission to develop content and software solutions that carry the mindset, the methodologies, and the organization design of the digital economy into established enterprises. On this mission, we are building on the “Objective and Key Result” (OKR) goal setting framework, because we believe as an agile framework and a philosophy it is the most advanced set of best practices for organizations of our time. The majority of digitization initiatives fail because organizations do not understand what the digital transformation really is about: mindset, culture and the internal system of relationships and rules which we call the operating systems of a company.

So we began to wonder what the rise of WOL could mean for operative goal management systems like OKRs and how these systems could be integrated or at least benefit from each other. At the same time, many of our customers began to ask for the connection of WOL and existing goal management systems or if there are ways to manage WOL circles on the Workpath platform.

But first things first: The similarities between OKRs and WOL

The following descriptions would equally work for Objectives and Key Results and for Working Out Loud. Both formats have a proven process where…

  • Small teams of about 5 people
  • work in cycles of 12 weeks
  • on a limited set of shared goals.
  • So work is not managed along hierarchies and reporting lines anymore, but around shared goals and priorities the team members care about,
  • build on a clear set of values: transparency, collaboration, alignment.

At the same time, the two frameworks seem to have complementary attributes  

The shortcomings of OKRs: Introducing OKRs usually is a longer process where stakeholders have to be trained, existing goal management systems get replaced over time, and several core processes of the businesses are affected. Once OKRs are established, they serve as an agile operating system that enables transparency and speed, continuous learning and development, and more focus and engagement – but getting there can be challenging.

The shortcomings of WOL: Many professionals mock Working Out Loud as a small social experiment without any impact on the work and performance that is relevant for a business. While it is relatively easy to start WOL circles bottom up within the organization, defining business cases that demonstrate the measurable value of the acquired skills and principles is rather difficult.  

Bridging the Gap

In order to overcome the obvious barriers of adopting a new system like OKRs, we spend a lot of time developing onboarding programs and coachings that help people learning an “agile mindset” and experiencing the principles and individual benefits. OKRs are designed to teach these principles while working with the system. However, this kind of learning experience sometimes would be more sufficient if it was provided earlier.

This year, we started developing OKR+ as an enhanced set of principles and guidelines for established enterprises with a European work culture in order to provide a broader perspective on how an agile goal and alignment system can be integrated with existing systems and structures. So just like we design and share these frameworks and coaching formats with our implementation partners and customers, we would like to think about ways of bridging the illustrated gap with other practitioners that care about the challenge. The initiators of the WOL Community of Practice demonstrate how networking across company borders can help starting a movement and advance the tool set for the digital transformation. I think there is a lot to learn from Working Out Loud for all of us. We are convinced it could have great impact to bridge the gap between WOL as a coaching format to develop agile skills and mindset, and OKRs as an advanced system that requires a certain level of agile maturity and understanding to be fully exploited.

 

That is why I’d like to share the following questions with peers of the WOL and the OKR Community:

  1. Do you agree with my observations? Is there a gap that could and should be closed?
  2. Do you believe WOL can be adapted for that purpose or should the format rather stay independent?
  3. Would you like to pursue the idea and discuss ways to bridge the gap with us?
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