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Thinking Out Loud (TOL)

A Thinking Out Loud Session

When we think out loud in the context of a group, we express our thoughts openly and freely to others. We make no judgments and we claim no ownership. We offer thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and assumptions. All contributions are welcomed. We turn our focus on answering what’s possible and let ourselves explore different ideas that can lead to new avenues of thought.

It helps to have some technology to do this work. We love to use groupware for this purpose. We can set up a simple group exercise where we ask the leaders to share their thoughts on a critical issue, complex problem, new product, or customer experience. The results are often surprising and rewarding. Here’s why:

When you set up a “Thinking Out Loud” (TOL) session, you begin to change the norms in your group. Groups have norms of behavior, these are the tacit ways that team members work together. For example, on some teams, the same people speak most of the time. And surprisingly the order in which they speak can often be predicted. TOL breaks through this. If you have 30 leaders in a meeting and ask them a thought provoking question, give them some time, and a tool that allows all team members to see each other’s thoughts instantly and anonymously, you will be surprised at the energy and the enthusiasm you release.

Ideas Build Upon Each Other

The technology we use shows their ideas on a large screen as they appear in real time. This is a bit disconcerting at first. Thoughts appear like magic some funny, some critical, some short, others long and detailed. All of those who usually hold back group discussions have a chance to have their thoughts equally posted and visible. Essentially TOL levels the playing field.

As you let the group continue to post, you will observe themes emerge. These are the thoughts that are core, common and consistent across the data. A cross-sectional theme team mines the results and reports their conclusions about what they are see and identify as mission critical. This experience is  different from administering a survey or running small focus groups. The results can easily be biased by those writing the questions or facilitating the focus group. The TOL invites open discussion in real time about the discovers as they are happening.

Example in Action

A while back we created a TOL session for an internal IT Customer Service Department. We invited leaders from the organization to attend special sessions in a group setting to help us set priorities for the internal customer support initiatives for the next year. They could come either to a breakfast session or a lunch time session. We used good food to entice participation and reward their efforts.


The Team celebrated their results. First, the participants loved the experience. They loved being asked and they were excited about participating. We invited the participants from different departments to the session so that we could get a cross section of ideas. Secondly, we got great data. We prioritized a number of themes immediately at the session. Finally, we published the results to the larger organization.

The IT Customer Service Department besides learning what was most important to work on from their internal customer’s perspective, became know for leading change efforts instead of reacting to endless complaints. The organization recognized this team for its contribution to the bottom line. The effort paid for itself many times over.

TOL sessions are easy to set up and fun to facilitate. The most important consideration is to contract very well with what will happen with the data you collect. If you’d like a demo of a TOL session for your team or organization, send us a message through Linked In or through our contact form. If you’d like to see more of these ideas, join our mailing list. Remember, “One call gets you right to the top.”

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