[C – Collaborative] Taking a ‘CALM’ approach to asynchronous workplace communication

For those not yet familiar with the ‘CALM’ framework, it includes the practice of being:

  • C – Collaborative: engaging openly and transparently with other staff to plan and develop (internal or external) work products.
  • A – Anticipatory: planning effectively using agile methods, being aware of relevant data (through analysis and reporting) and building in a process for feedback.
  • L – Letting go of Command and Control Leadership and Embracing Collective Leadership: locating and enabling leaders at all levels whilst developing a shared sense of decision-making and accountability – demonstrating leaderful actions.
  • M – Mindful: making time and space to reflect on information and decisions.

The ‘CALM’ framework may be applied to the shift to remote work. Simply transferring work practices from the physical space to the digital space will not work. Let’s be honest with each other – was how we were working in a physical space really working? When working remotely, communication and conversation are critical ingredients to ensure we are collectively working towards shared goals and objectives. When working remotely, we need to develop the habit of over communicating. We have to narrate our work and collaborate-in-place, so others are clear about what we are doing and why. 

In the below recording of the ‘One by One’ Digital Forum workshop held virtually on June 15, 2020, the ‘One by One research team shared the ‘CALM’ approach as a means of examining the conditions for leadership to thrive at all levels of an organization. The intended impact of this session was to inform practitioners about how digital collaboration and communication practices can scale decision-making across the organization and enable the necessary scaffolding for the development of relevant skills needed to support the ‘museum of the future’.

“Communication over information. Conversation over tools.”

Jane Bozarth, Show Your Work

First, we need to understand what we are sharing before determining where to share. We need to delve into the ‘C’ of the ‘CALM’ approach and identify the foundational elements of collaboration.

There are different types of knowledge:

  • Declarative knowledge is about describing something. A shared, explicit understanding of concepts, categories, and descriptors lays the foundation for effective communication and knowledge sharing in organizations.
  • Procedural knowledge is about how something occurs or is performed. Shared explicit procedural knowledge lays a foundation for efficiently coordinated action in organizations.
  • Causal knowledge is about why something occurs. Shared explicit causal knowledge, often in the form of organizational stories, enables organizations to coordinate strategy for achieving goals or outcomes.

Do you remember math class – when the teacher asked you to show your work? It wasn’t simply about getting the right answer. The teacher wanted to see your thinking process and how you came to that answer. Even if you got the answer wrong, but showed your work, you may have even received partial credit for what parts of the process you did correctly. The teacher was then able to notice your gaps in knowledge and focus on finding ways to help bridge those gaps. 

Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to show our work. We became scared of what others thought. We became fearful of sharing thoughts before each piece of the puzzle was perfectly considered (or so we thought). We became fearful that someone would use this information against us. We come to work anxious and frightened – openness and transparency, while hailed by all, practiced by few. 

When we write and share our thoughts, this practice requires reflection from the writer during the writing process, as well as, from the person(s) consuming this information once shared / published. Too often what is shared is not useful and is decontextualized. We can not turn this information into knowledge without context.

We have to work-out-loud (read this previous ‘One by One’ blog post for a refresher on what it means to work-out-loud and how this practice may be adapted to cultural organizations).

How might we signal and model work-out-loud practices to cultivate healthy knowledge (consistent communication, conversation, and collaboration)?

Declarative knowledge: What is your organization’s shared or common language? 

  • Reintroducing yourself to the organization: One common misconception is that everyone in the organization knows what every other person does. This is not the case – even in small organizations, many people wear a multitude of hats and do not document or visualize the work they are doing, why they are doing this work, and how this work gets done. Ask your employees to be creative and reintroduce who they are and what makes them tick. This challenge may take the form of a ‘Day in the life’ blog post, voice memo, or even a video. The introduction should not be limited to name and title, but ask why they work at your organization; their passions and hobbies; and how they would describe their expertise or area of specialty. Ensure employees translate this creative introduction to their profiles (of any technologies being used to promote more seamless communication and collaboration), so this wonderful information is lost and re-discovered often.
  • Sharing feedback: Limiting feedback to one-way email communication limits the learning opportunities of all. We could cut down time spent recreating work (with the same mistakes) and meetings, if we shared our professional feedback a bit more broadly. Ask your employees to use in-text comments in a shared document to ask clarifying questions and share recommendations or other directions. Explain why you are leaving that feedback – is the feedback in response to a direction you received and need to share? More people benefit from knowing what was changed and why.
  • Offering praise: When working in a digital space, we forget that we need to recreate serendipitous encounters and moments to cheer people’s work contributions. Ask your employees to highlight and publically (via your digital space) thank another person at least once a week. Ensure this exercise is being modeled by employees at all levels of the organization.
  • Refamiliarizing all with the habits, routines, and shared language: This is the perfect time to reexamine how information is organized and the associated permissions to access this information. Is everyone in your organization aware of how files and folders are named and where and when they may be accessed? Communicate why and how information is named and stored. How often should employees review and move files from the Intranet or other collaboration tool (i.e. Slack or Microsoft Team) to a central filing system? How might you advise employees to consistently label documents and folders across the entire digital ecosystem? The naming and storing of data indicates how often this data is used to inform and be cultivated into shared knowledge. This is your organization’s memory – it is your shared language.

Procedural knowledge: What is  your organization approach to collaboration?

  • Narrating work: Ask your employees to show their workflow – what are they doing and why? How is their work informed by or impacted by other’s work? This understanding will help all employees better estimate work and practice agile project management. We take for granted that we know how to plan and deploy an exhibition. Yet, so often we run out of time and money because we did not properly account for how someone or some team needed to complete their work. Or because we were not collectively narrating our work, we ended up with a square instead of a circle, and we are forced to make something work or scrap the whole thing entirely and pay an exorbitant amount of money to correct at the 11th hour. Sound familiar? Ask employees to narrate their work in a shared digital space or channel. 
  • Reflecting on ‘This is how I do that’: In addition to narrating work, consider creating a shared wiki or space on your Intranet or even a file folder to document how people accomplish certain tasks or combinations of tasks. How do you run a virtual event or webinar? Document all the steps and lessons learned and make this information public, so (1) all employees know exactly what it takes to complete that task; (2) employees know they do not have to recreate the wheel and save time and energy by using what already exists; and (3) employees may continuously build on the knowledge stored in organization’s memory. Maybe there are new technologies and features to be used when hosting a virtual event and this information may be added to this shared document.
  • Developing after-action briefs: Just as you collectively share what was done or how it was achieved, ask your employees to document and share collectively the outputs, outcomes and what was learned. These briefs should include information such as:
    • What did I know when I started the project versus now? 
    • What were my / leadership’s expectations for this task / project? 
    • What obstacles did I / we encounter? Were these obstacles overcome? If so, how were these obstacles overcome?
    • What did I / we learn? 
    • What skills were needed at the start of and during the task / project? 
    • What would I / we do differently knowing what we know now? 
  • Establishing Skill Circles: Rather than require employees to manage their own personal development plans, how might you make it easier for employees to learn together while achieving a specific strategic goal or objective? Consider adapting John Stepper’s Work-out-Loud Circles to bring together a small group of employees to learn a specific capability or set of skills? For instance, let’s say you need your employees to better learn how to input data and use your Customer Relationship Database (CRM)? Rather than paying for expensive training or requiring each employee to take a training course on their own using practice data / activities, form a WoL Circle to teach a different CRM skill or task each week for limited time (6, 8, or 12-week period) to help your organization prepare for an upcoming event – let’s say the launch of an exhibition. One week, you could show employees how to enter information into prospect or visitor profiles. The next week, you could teach employees how to extract a media list. The next week, you could show how to document email and phone conversations in association with a specific vistor’s profiles. Employees learn-by-doing together. The activity is not additive, rather it helps progress the overall objective or project.

Casual knowledge: What is your organization’s approach to communication?

  • Implementing Work-out-Loud Wednesdays: Narrating and showing one’s work needs scaffolding to be successful. Consistency is key to sticky internal engagement. Ask employees to respond to a single conversation thread (on your Intranet or other collaboration tool) on a designated day each week. [Personally, I like Wednesdays because people are in the middle of the week and not either overwhelmed at the start or the end of a week. This is a critical time to ask questions, motivate, and help an employee progress work.] Employees should respond to the thread with the following information: (1) This is what I accomplished last week; (2) Here is what I plan on accomplishing this week; and (3) Here are the obstacles I am facing. Brevity is key. You are not looking for a multiple page essay. You are looking for “this is what I did and why” – a snapshot of the work in progress, skills being used or lacking, and obstacles that need to be discussed and overcome. This information will help other employees know specifically how they might support each other, and most importantly, will cut down on the number of status meetings. 
  • Reflecting on ‘This is why/how I learned that’: Just as your employees are narrating their work, it is important to reflect how skills are developed over time. Knowing why skills are needed are just as important as knowing how one develops those skills. This is critical when thinking about how skills might be scaled across your organization. Who knows what? How might you build a peer mentoring or train-the-trainer model or simply provide a set of resources for an employee to develop those skills on their own time?
  • Documenting decisions: What happens in many meetings (physical and digital) usually stays in those meetings instead of being shared and contextualized for others. Ask your employees to share meeting notes (that may be understood by people not affiliated with that project or aspect of that project / topic – this helps show what ‘done’ looks like) or distill discussion topics to what can be shared on publicly available channels, so all may benefit from knowing what was discussed and why / how decisions were made. Consider adding a table to project documents or meeting notes that outlines decision criteria – this may help standardize documentation of decisions. This information is helpful for people as they prepare to pitch or present a related activity. This is also important information for the organization’s memory – when people leave or need to recall what happened in a past project, it is helpful to have documentation of how, why, and when decisions were made. Show others you / we how to learn from what we are already doing without adding more work into the mix.
  • Boosting morale: What happens in your digital space does not have to be all seriousness all the time. Find time for people to share in an activity together, like book club circles or perhaps a watch party, but instead of that hot, new show on Netflix, you can watch a TED talk or virtual webinar / conference. We have to find the time and the space to be human together even while operating exclusively in a digital ecosystem.

No one is exempt from working-out-loud. To make this behavior stick, employees need to see leaders and managers across the organization actively and consistently practice knowledge sharing. Narrating your work or learning experience while you are doing it is not easy – vulnerability is required. We may not have the answers – and that is OK. 

Employees need to hear you don’t know and the steps you are taking to figure something out – because when you are silent and do not share information or communicate actions, people tune out and stop caring. If you lack the energy or time, employees will follow suit. Senior leaders need to model healthy communication and collaboration now more than ever.

Now is the time to show your work and celebrate it – think about who else could learn from this? If not now when much of our core work or activity has hit pause or requires reflection and redirection, then when?  If what you are doing is not worth sharing, then why do it? Show people why your work is important. 

Work-out-Loud resources

To help prepare you to conduct your own work-out-loud practice, we have compiled a list of resources to make you more aware of what working-out-loud  is and is not.

The next step in taking a CALM approach is being Anticipatory, this means planning effectively using agile methods, being aware of relevant data (through analysis and reporting) and building in a process for feedback.