On Working Out Loud

I came across an interesting and meaningful (at least to me) expression a few weeks ago. It was in the context of demonstrating social project management software (yes, that’s an actual thing, and it looks like a pretty wonderful thing—but I digress). In describing the capabilities and intent of the software, one of the meeting participants described it as enabling people to “work out loud.”

When you stop and think about that for a minute, the idea of working out loud is an interesting concept. And it’s actually—at least for many people—a pretty radical one.

For the most part, we don’t work out loud today. Whatever our assignments, our engagements or our commitments, we tend to take them away and focus on them quietly and in isolation. When they are done, we bring them into the light, handing them over and sharing them with others. Until it’s actually done, it’s simply ‘work in progress.’ And when we discuss our work in progress, we often do so in relatively vague and evasive terms.

Asked how we are doing, we might say “It’s coming along.” Or “I’m making good progress.” Or “A few hiccups, but nothing major.” Occasionally, you might here a “I’m having issues, but it’s nothing that I can’t sort out and get addressed.” When you get down to it, these noncommittal updates are the status equivalent of meaningless cocktail-party chatter. It’s uttering words, while saying absolutely nothing.

The reasons why we don’t work out loud are many, but they can also be meaningful and interesting to explore. For some of us, it’s the belief that people won’t appreciate what we’ve done until it’s finished. Or that we will get edits and critiques that we don’t want or that we already know about and are planning to address.

Sometimes, the fear of letting people too close to our work too soon is that they will identify deficiencies and gaps, and that we’ll have to start all over again. Or that they will ask for additional wants and desires that will add to our workload before we even finish what’s in front of us.

For some of us, though, the simple reality is that we don’t like people looking over our shoulders. We don’t want to be second guessed. We don’t want to be micromanaged. We don’t want to hear, “Well, I wouldn’t have done it that way.” And we don’t want to be completely honest about our status, when we might have done nothing whatsoever so far, but we’ll make up for it with a herculean effort just prior to—and sometimes just after—the deadline passes.

The interesting thing about all of these reasons is that, in essence, they speak to fear. They reflect fear of what others might say, and fear of what our reaction might be if they say it. They reflect fear of our (in)ability to manage or negotiate or respond in a constructive and positive way if we receive input that is unhelpful or overly critical.

At the same time, the idea of working out loud can be a really powerful one. It’s essentially the principle of saying, “This is what I’m working on and this is where I’m at and this is what I’m experiencing and this is what I’m doing about it.” In a constructive and collaborative and positive environment, that can be pretty amazing and useful. It means that people genuinely know what’s going on, where things are at and what the real status of the work is (for good or ill).

If problems are being encountered, people may have helpful suggestions and insights to offer, and there is an opportunity to negotiate that. Where similar circumstances and issues have been experienced, there is an opportunity to share constructive advice. There is also the ability to proactively ask for the specific types of feedback or assistance that would be helpful.

The challenge is that most of us don’t have experience in the concept of what working out loud actually feels like. And, like anything new, that means it’s going to probably feel awkward at first. We need to train ourselves to think in a different mindset about doing this. And we need to negotiate with others about how we’d like them to interact, and how we respond to their feedback. All of that takes work and effort. It also means—as with any other change that we find uncomfortable or awkward— that it will be awfully tempting to revert back to our normal style of working.

To a certain extent, some of the tools and methods of agile have been built around principles of working out loud. The idea of a daily scrum meeting in particular reflects this. It creates an exception—in a focused and condensed manner—that every participant in a project shares the following information:
1. What did you work on yesterday?
2. What will you accomplish today?
3. What issues or challenges are in your way?
The value of these questions manifests most clearly when the answers are specific and detailed, as opposed to being vague and evasive. As we’ve already acknowledged, it can be incredibly tempting and easy to be noncommittal. Being clear and specific takes work and requires effort, on the part of everyone involved.

There is another context to working out loud that I got to experience the benefits and challenges of in a couple of different ways recently, both during the same weekend. We had friends to the house, and—as I often do when we entertain—I was cooking. Our friends were in the kitchen around the island, and I was invited to explain what I was doing as I was doing it. It was something that, put on the spot, I found incredibly uncomfortable and difficult to do. And while I made an attempt, I pretty much tapered off in a minute or so and went back to just cooking. My friends let me off the hook, and the conversation went elsewhere.

And that’s unfortunate. I like cooking. My friends were genuinely interested in what I was doing. I’m normally happy to share experiences and insights (as this website readily attests). But caught be surprise, I felt awkward and uncomfortable and like an unexpected spotlight had been shone on what I was doing. And I wanted nothing more for the light to go away so I could go back to the comfortably obscurity of what I had been doing previously.

The next day, I took one of my friends on a motorcycle ride. He was planning to get a license of his own, and was preparing for an upcoming motorcycle training course. We’d spent much of the ride so far—and our time in a coffee shop—discussing all things riding, and he was fascinated and eager to learn. So on the ride back to the house, I basically gave him a ride-along commentary of what I was doing and why, based on road conditions, sight lines, traffic and environment. He was thrilled, thought it incredibly helpful, and found it the most enjoyable part of the ride by far.

This is, of course, a slight variation on the idea of working out loud that this article started with. But it can actually be a valuable variation. Talking through what we are doing as we are doing it is not, in fact, a sign of impending madness. It’s a way of focussing and keeping ourselves centred, aware and engaged with what we are doing. And there is a great deal of research and insight that suggests it can be incredibly helpful.

In fact, it is one of the fundamental skills taught to police drivers, particularly in the UK. The idea of ‘commentary driving’ is about providing a running dialogue of what you are seeing, what you are doing, what you are thinking and what you are planning while you drive. For police, it is particularly important as an emergency response technique, although many driving schools have also borrowed the principle. Some of us have subsconsciously employed the same approach, talking through something that we are writing, a programming problem or the solution to a difficult problem.

Whether working out loud in real time, or just in reflecting and communicating status, there is effort required to master doing so. Neither approach is entirely natural and comfortable at the start, and both require practice and familiarity in order to get used to it.

More particularly, we need to negotiate with our teams and colleagues about how we do this. The agenda of daily scrum meetings provides a guide, but what is particularly necessary is negotiation around the details. Providing a status update on what we have done and what we are about to do should be specific and precise. We need to set an expectation with our colleagues and team members that updates need be specific discussions of content and work, not general overviews. It’s not about “I spent the day writing,” but “I wrote these four specific sections of this chapter, covering these particular items.”

As well, what we outline in terms of issues, concerns, impediments and roadblocks also needs to be specific. We’re not having “some issues.” We are having “this particular issue, which is currently creating this specific consequence for me.” The other side of this update, however, is about how feedback to these issues is provided. Team members should make offers, rather than unsolicited edicts, recommendations or solutions. On other words, responses should not begin with the words “You should…” The should ideally be phrased as, “I have experience in dealing with that kind of situation; can I offer some assistance?”

The point of working out loud is that it enhances communication, it provides an implicit understanding of progress and status and it keeps the entire team operating at a higher level of awareness and collaboration. In doing so, my work is still my work. My talking about it doesn’t make it your work, and sharing pogress isn’t an explicit invitation for you to express your opinion, criticism or additional requirements. You can ask me if some input or assistance would be helpful or useful. I can also respond with a polite and firm “no” when I feel I have the situation covered.

Working out loud isn’t new. In fact, it is largely still prevalent in physical work like construction. In doing knowledge work, however, we seem to have learned to shut up, put our heads down, be quiet and do our assignments. Specifically, we learned to do that in school. And while many of us bristled at keeping quiet then, many more of us would benefit from opening up and really sharing what is going on, and how we think it’s going.

2 Comments to “On Working Out Loud”

  1. Scott Delinger says:

    I don’t agree with the premise from which you start. I long for the days when one could work closely focused in a quiet space individually. Today it’s far more likely that one is at a table with several others, all talking at once with someone else on a phone. Entire companies are eliminating the ABILITY to work in isolation. Jason Fried’s book ReWork is spot on: work is the place one can’t get work done.

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Scott:

      Thanks for the comment, and I don’t disagree with you at all.

      I think the distinction that needs to be made here is ‘working out loud’ (making our work and progress visible) and ‘working in a loud environment’ (getting nothing whatsoever done).

      I’ve been an advocate of the right space for the right work for a long time. When we originally built our offices, we took more than a few pages out of Lister & De Marco’s “Peopleware.” People had space, real offices, doors that could be closed without fear of sanction and phones that could be muted.

      There was still an expectation of collaboration, interaction, visible progress and contribution. But that was something inspired by the culture, not forced by the office furniture.

Leave a Comment