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Working Out Loud in practice: a conversation with John Stepper about the beginnings, successes and challenges of his method (part II)

How it all began, what SMEs should be aware of, what is difficult and how he works with it himself – John Stepper, author of ‘Working Out Loud: For a better career and life’, answers these questions and more.

9 minutes 9 minutes
Table of Contents
The book, a TED conference talk and a blog on the methods of Working Out Loud by John Stepper have been available for three years. In more and more companies and institutions, groups are working with his Circle Guides, worksheets for 12 weeks, to achieve their goals. A major WOL conference is taking place in Shanghai at the end of June to spread the concept in China, too. We asked John Stepper how WOL is used by small and medium-sized enterprises, where WOL Circles go wrong and how best to get started.


John Stepper

• New Yorker: lives and works in the city of his birth
• Family man: father of five children
• Computer scientist: degree at Columbia University
• Freelancer: after 30 years in employment, he was let go and became self-employed


What made you develop the Working Out Loud approach and for whom did you want it to be useful?

John Stepper: I felt the lack of control and fulfilment at work had made me unhappy, and resulted in the personal dissatisfaction for many other people at work, too. So I looked for a way that anyone could improve how they relate to themselves, to others, and to the work they do.

It seems to me it is not all new or rocket science, but rather a kind of reassertion of common values. How do you explain the growing success and movement of WOL?

John Stepper: The elements of WOL are founded largely on ancient wisdom. The ‘new’ thing is that these elements are packaged in such a way that it’s easy for almost anyone to practise, especially at work. Circles are ‘work-friendly’ and fit neatly into existing corporate programmes. That allows WOL to reach many people it would never reach otherwise. A Circle is also a safe, confidential space, and that allows people to experiment and be vulnerable – to be themselves – in a way most have never experienced at work. The result is that many people feel different after their Circle. And it’s that feeling that makes them want to tell others about it and to spread it.

Reading about WOL, I got the impression that it is mainly big companies that are using WOL to change their culture of learning within the company (IBM, Bosch, Coca-Cola, Siemens). Why is that?

John Stepper: There are several reasons for this:

  • Big companies recognise the collaboration and innovation challenges they face, and are looking for something to help address those challenges.
  • Big companies have scale. So even if 1% of Bosch (for example) is in a WOL Circle, that would be 4,000 people.
  • Big companies have more events and visible external communications, so you’re more likely to hear about their WOL experience.

Having said that, WOL has spread to schools, hospitals and small consulting companies, and is used by many entrepreneurs and start-ups.

What would you suggest to small and medium-sized companies in terms of how to start WOL for their purposes and under their conditions?

John Stepper: The pattern is the same across most organisations. One person decides to try WOL and forms a Circle. If they like it, they tell their friends and a few more Circles form. Over time, a small grassroots movement forms. In some cases that gets the attention of HR (or Digital or Innovation programmes) and the institution supports it by funding events, extra training, and integrating Circles into existing programmes.

I know of small IT, education and manufacturing companies where WOL has made a difference for people who’ve joined them – and many one-person companies. For testimonials, the best people to ask would be the WOL community so they can speak for themselves!

Is there any difference or difficulty in practising WOL that a small business should be aware of?

John Stepper: Sometimes a small business can feel too intimate, and so a Circle with colleagues may not feel psychologically safe. If that’s the case, I suggest you form a Circle with people outside the company. Then you can apply what you learned at work, and perhaps encourage others to form Circles, too.

What main reasons for failure of WOL Circles have you already noticed? What’s your advice on how to tackle this hurdle? 

John Stepper: The three top challenges by far are related to logistics, choosing individual goals and managing to do the exercises each week. To align the schedules of five people 12 times can seem nearly impossible. As Woody Allen once said, ‘80 per cent of success is just showing up’ – and that’s the biggest issue for WOL Circles. Goals are another major challenge. I originally thought choosing a goal would be easy, but it isn’t. In later versions of the Circle Guides, I included more instructions in Week 1, but for some people it’s not enough. They wind up picking a goal that doesn’t spark their curiosity or interest, or that’s too big or small, and it’s not enough to sustain their motivation for the full 12 weeks. A third challenge is finding time to do the exercises. I purposefully packed the agenda week so the pace would be fast and people wouldn’t be bored. I also provided additional sections in the guides if you needed to do less or wanted to do more. Still, for some people it’s too much in an hour and they want to spend more time on exercises. Others want more time for discussion. Some Circles never find a balance, and people may get frustrated and leave. For all of these challenges, I’ve seen practitioners try different experiments and come up with innovations that help. For my part, I’m doing my own experiments, continuing to work on ways to make Circles easier and more engaging, and creating more resources for those who want to spread the practice. Though WOL isn’t a perfect method, I’m more optimistic than ever, because every day I see feedback from people from all over the world about their Circle experience. By ‘working out loud about Working Out Loud’ we can help more people and make a bigger impact. Whether you make a difference for yourself, for your Circle, or for a movement of thousands of people, it all starts with making the attempt.

There is a WOL Light version to introduce WOL to leaders (management). Are there leaders that participated in a Circle just like everybody else or do they never find the time to learn it? 

John Stepper: While there are some managers who participate in Circles, for most of them a Circle is not a psychologically safe space, and they often have even more difficulty scheduling the 12 meetings than many people. So WOL for Leaders has them pair with a reverse mentor for ten 30-minute sessions that don’t require any preparation or work between meetings. It’s a way for them to take a step, and at least expose them to how WOL can help them, their organisation and the company.

The principles of WOL suggest a very giving, kind and generous mindset towards others. But as we know, sometimes there is also anger, frustration or opposition in collaboration. What do you suggest with regard to how to deal with such ‘negative’ vibrations in a WOL Circle or on our personal journey of learning? 

John Stepper: This is part of the reason for the emphasis on empathy in Week 4 (and others) and for dealing with the lack of response and negative responses. Most of the ‘negative vibrations’ are in our head, or more precisely, caused by our responses to events. We can control those with practice – both to see more clearly the intentions of others and also to understand our own motivations and responses so we can act with more integrity and clarity. Becoming more empathetic and self-aware takes a lot of practice. The Circle is a good, safe place to start and helps make it more habitual.

How many WOL Circles did you already join? Is there any kind of advanced practice occurring after so many times using WOL? A master’s degree in WOL?

John Stepper: I’ve been in nine Circles, and I’m developing a new practice for people who’ve been in a Circle and are ready for something more. I’ll publish new (free) guides and do the first experiments later this year.

What is your advice for absolute beginners: what does it take to get started?

John Stepper: Form a Circle. You can ask friends, or ask people in the WOL groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. (In those groups, people already know what WOL is and your request will evoke responses from people around the world and perhaps also from around the corner.)

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