Working Out Loud From the Top – Half a Century Ago – At NASA

Working out Loud, a Mindset Independent of Technology

“Monday’s Notes” – at NASA in the 1960’s

Wernher von Braun, head of the Marshall Space Flight Center (part of NASA) set up a system for working out loud. Most people do not know this case because (1) it happened half a century ago, and (2) it is not sexy or media-worthy as there is no technology involved. It’s all based on paper, pens and a duplicating machine.

From Science magazine, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, November 1968:

“….It may turn out that [the space program’s] most valuable spin-off of all will be human rather than technological: better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate, and monitor the multitudinous and varied activities of the organizations required to accomplish great social undertakings.” (ref. Dr. Launius)

Very simply, Von Braun asked each of his senior managers to send him a one-page note each Monday listing the past week’s activities – successes, concerns, questions. He personally noted his comments in the margins of each page, and returned each one to the original writer. The ultimate step – the genius of the approach – was that all the papers were photocopied and shared with all the managers. The system rolled down and included project leaders, R&D people, and so on.

I visualize Von Braun’s approach as above in my diagram. I learned of this case from Dr. Roger Launius who wrote a description and analysis that is well worth reading.  Please take the time to do so. It will give you a new perspective on management. Jane Bozarth, author of Show Your Work, places Launius’s write up in the context of “working out loud”, which is where I discovered this case.

Where did “working out loud” come from?

Working out loud has become the common term for what started nearly 10 years ago with Dave Winer in Narrate your work (2009), followed by Managing the visibility of knowledge work by Jim McGee in 2010. The same year, Brian Tullis and Joe Crumpler presented “In the flow: patterns of observable work” at the Enterprise 2.0 Summit in the States.

The term “working out loud” was coined by Bryce Williams the same year. He merged the notions of “narrating your work” and “observable work”. This makes sense.

Without observation, narrating serves no purpose. Without narrating, there is nothing to observe.

Recent and major contributions have been made with Show Your Work by Dr. Jane Bozarth  (2014) and John Stepper, Working out Loud, 2015.  Both are well worth reading and spending some time thinking about how working out loud could bring value to your people and organization.

Is “working out loud” based on a personal or an organizational dimension?

John Stepper’s method, based on peer-to-peer support circles, is taking off in a number of companies, especially in some of the largest global companies in the world head-quartered in Germany. His vision, as the subtitle of his book clearly says, is to work out loud “for a better career and life”. This may sound self-centered, but in fact, people who enjoy their work and lives are obviously going to contribute and be proactive in their organizations.

This was confirmed by Beate Strittmatter and Julia Weber, enthusiasts of working out loud and HR professionals at ZF (automotive technology, >100,000 workforce) who ran a interactive WOL session at the November session of IntraNetwork.  The event was so invigorating that two people present plan to experiment with the idea in their own companies!

Do you work out loud?



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