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A collaborator’s journey

I wrote a blog piece two weeks ago about my journey to ‘working out loud’. A reflection on my learning that I then hesitated to post because something felt inauthentic. After spending a Saturday night with a small number of the amazing women activists I have collaborated with over the last two decades to progress women’s equality I realised what that was. I had focused on coming to ‘working out loud’ in the last two years. While it is true that this time has been instrumental for me in life changes and how I have applied and improved my skills in collaboration it denied the story that had gone before. The story about how I developed these skills now being enthusiastically feted in the debates about the ‘future of work’ in feminist campaigning, how many of these skills came instinctively to me but I had learnt that they were not welcome in the more formal sphere of work. I was being inauthentic about the experiences that have nurtured and stunted these skills and selling myself and my closest collaborators short.

That story is not to detract from the benefits I have found through structuring my approach to collaboration in ways that are common within the ‘working out loud’ community. But it is important to acknowledge it, and recognise that there is a longer, broader experience to my skills development, and I consider there to be a gendered dimension to successful collaboration practice that we need to think about when we look at what we want from the modern workplace. But for now, having acknowledged that, I feel comfortable to reflect on my personal adoption of the working out loud structure over the last two years to support me as collaborator.

Two and a half years ago now I decided to make the move out of a large organisation. At the time of the decision I had a plan, by the time my last day rolled around ‘plan a’ was already redundant and I had not foreseen the need for ‘plan b’; an interesting position given the years spent planning and delivering projects and programmes! The nearest I had got was a handy post-hoc justification for just ‘jacking in’ my long-term career to go in search of the next one, from Roman Krznaric’s, How to Find Fulfilling Work. It was this book, a great friend’s spare room and the privilege of some spare cash that enabled my first conscious adventure into ‘purposeful discovery’ focused on myself.

I knew what I was good at and enjoyed doing; roughly summarised as changing things for good outcomes, understanding systems, connecting well with people, supporting others to develop and finding solutions in working with others. These things were me at my best at work and in my activism and campaigning. With this I set off investigating a whole range of things I was also interested in and motivated by. I did not know the structure or 5 key elements of ‘working out loud’ I later learnt of in John Stepper’s guide to Working Out Loud but with a degree of mission I was open, asked questions, introduced myself….. and things started happening as a result. Not everything was a great idea, sometimes I missed the mark and I certainly tried some, shall we say ‘interesting opportunities’. Being open not only to new ideas and positive successes but also the learning that comes from the not so good is central to a growth mindset. Sports coaching had already introduced me to Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, I had immediately recognised a positive description of my curiosity for new things and frequent recourse to, “I just thought I’d give it a go”, traits at some points that had been perceived as negative and lacking in focus.

In my discoveries I was able to reach out, but initially only to some people and in certain situations. Building good relationships with people was something I was good at when I worked in an organisation, but these connections were generally built up over time and based on demonstrating to people the high quality and reliability of my work. In activism I built strong and powerful relationships with others based on intense shared passions and deep trust. I had always struggled with making quicker, insincere connections; I hated conferences and traditional “networking” events because I couldn’t think what to say, doubted I would have anything of use to others and didn’t enjoy reeling off self-serving ‘elevator pitches’. On social media I think it had taken me nearly two years to actually send a tweet such was my fear of being ‘misunderstood’ and dislike for ‘fake’ connections.

Working freelance it was obvious I needed to speed up my relationship building and find new ways of demonstrating what I was about and being able to build meaningful connections, potentially over social media. It was Helen Sanderson introducing me to ‘working out loud’ that changed the game. Starting slowly, using many of the tools in John Stepper’s book I began to gain confidence when simple acts of generosity towards people I didn’t know, via social media - a “thanks for sharing” on twitter, re-posting an event on facebook, recommending articles and blogs - began to gain responses and interest in my own work and thoughts.

And that is where I hit for me the hardest element of ‘working out loud’ - making my work visible. Whilst an instinctive collaborator and sharer of thoughts in progress when working in a face to face team and when conversing with people of shared passions I was, and remain, incredibly nervous about putting my ideas or thoughts more out there and on-line. A number of experiences within organisations where sharing ‘half-baked’ options were seen as a failure not a strength influenced my caution with those outside of my immediate sphere of trust. Becoming involved in my first working out loud circle and taking small, gradual steps to practice sharing helped me to overcome some of these fears. Two things in the last 3 months have helped me to turn a corner - Simon Terry’s short but very to the point blog on the ‘Asymmetrical Advantage of Working Out Loud’ and being introduced by Kate Pinner to Shannon Tipton’s 30-day brainstorming challenge when facilitating the first on-line WOLcircles course with John.

I didn’t actually complete the 30-day challenge, but that’s all part of the learning. And it’s part of the practice. Working out loud is exactly that, a practice that you have to keep on doing and developing, one that offers a framework to a range of skills that we will all have differing degrees of predisposition to already - but none of us will be entirely new to the ideas or new to them in all spheres of our lives. And we will all have to continuously keep learning and developing. My journey so far has been immensely rewarding, sometimes challenging, and it’s not the first time I have learnt the lesson about not asking for permission to behave in the way that instinctively feels right to me.

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