The real cost of transparency.

When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton famously responded, “Because that’s where the money is.” Similarly when creating a new product, we focused on enabling transparency, “Because that’s where the opportunity is.”

At least, you’d think that’d be the case. Transparency as a concept appears to be widely accepted as a way for teams to be more effective. In fact if you look at the stated values of many newer companies, transparency is typically highlighted, as one of the 4 or 5 key attributes deemed critical to the success of the organization.

Transparency just makes things . . . easier.

However, we’re finding the day-to-day reality at most organizations is somewhat disconnected from their stated aspirations. I have been puzzled by why this should be the case. Why isn’t transparency more commonly implemented? Why are so many of our organizations still, dare I say it, — opaque?

Clearly corporate inertia is partially responsible. Transparency is a new(ish) philosophy, and despite the best of intentions, information is still trapped in silos. Processes are still constrained by historical hierarchical structures and we’re just not well practiced in effectively sharing data laterally. However, I don’t believe inertia is the key impediment.

Our research has led me to conclude that effectively implementing a more transparent approach to work requires embracing three separate principles in order to be successful. Making one conceptual change to behavior is a challenge, so making three? Well, now you’re starting to see why the effective adoption of a transparent approach is the exception, not the rule.

The first principle is the hardest, and that is if you truly want to have transparency, you need to be prepared to be vulnerable.

That may seem like a small ask, but the truth is vulnerability is an uncomfortable feeling. Those of you who’ve ever taken a knee in front of a sig-o, might remember that disquieting sensation in the short eternity between the question being asked and the answer being given. However if you want openness we have to be prepared to bear the discomfort of feeling vulnerable.

The willingness to be vulnerable isn’t sufficient by itself to enable transparency, and that’s where the second principle comes into play.

Vulnerability needs needs to be met with reserve and understanding.

This is a change that needs to be embraced by our management tier and to be explicit requires a concerted effort to suppress the urge to spring into action when a problem is unveiled.Transparency gives you “x-ray vision” that shows you exactly how things are going on a project. This can be a super-power that enables better decision-making and smarter intervention. However, how things are going, might be “Not good”.

In fact “Not good” is far from an uncommon state of affairs. A project could be described as the exercise where a team of people uncover all the problems that need to be addressed in order to complete a task. There will be times that those problems appear insurmountable to the team. But to capitalize on transparency and use this enhanced perspective to attain better outcomes, you need to get practiced in recognizing when “Not good” means “Not good” in a “business-as-usual” kind of way” or “Not good” in a “we-need-help” kind of way.

This is the nuance I feel a lot of companies miss. Knowledge of a problem often provokes some kind of over-reaction, or at the very least a disruption from business as usual. That disruption perversely encourages teams to be reticent in sharing problems, meaning the equilibrium point is less transparency.

This is where the third factor and perhaps most critical principle comes into play. Practice.

Adopting transparency is a new behavior and like anything else, you can’t get good at it unless you regularly practice it. It should be self evident that having a better idea of what is happening on your projects is preferable to simply not knowing. The essential skill is encouraging vulnerability and exhibiting reserve, determining when intervening will be effective and when you need to just let your team just continue to do their awesome jobs.

You can guarantee that you’ll get it wrong a few times on both the reporting and the reaction side of things before a new equilibrium is found. This struggle is the true cost of transparency. However, if you can develop these skills and get into the habit of habitually being more transparent the rewards in both outcomes and the engagement within the team will act as a force multiplier in everything you do.

Now, isn’t that worth enduring a little discomfort?

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