We’re tackling the topic of transparency within a team or organization.  Part one concluded by arguing that transparency is hard because our brains equate transparency with risk.  “If I speak up in a meeting, people will see me as a trouble-maker”, “If I don’t accept this project assignment, my manager will give me a bad review”.  I called these “What-if” scenarios and I argue that these scenarios are usually much less significant than they seem.  In the second, and concluding, part of this discussion of transparency I’m giving you some tools to figure out where the edge of your transparency is, explore your “what-ifs” and allow you to make the decision about whether and how to be more transparent.

In writing this article, I’m assuming that you are a manager at some level in a company and that you are considering being more transparent with the people who work for you.

Understand The Prevailing Climate

Transparency isn’t an absolute or binary thing, it’s a continuum.   Creating a climate of transparency within your team means moving the needle toward more transparency.  There’s no “right” amount of transparency.  Your ability to achieve more transparency is bounded by the prevailing climate of the company you’re working in.  If you’ve worked in a few different companies, you’ll have noticed that they have their own customs about transparency.  Those customs often come from one or two cases where “a bad thing happened” and teams get cautious .  My experience at Microsoft was a great example of how a bad experience shapes the culture of transparency.

I joined Microsoft in 2003, about 18 months after Microsoft and the Department of Justice had settled their antitrust dispute.  When I joined, the case remained under appeal for another year.  Microsoft had spent the 3 years of the case having its ethics and business practices questioned in the court and by the media.  They were painted as a predator and monopolist.  Evidence of bad behavior included e-mail exchanges between executives like Bill Gates, Jeff Raikes, Bill Veghte, Jim Allchin and Nathan Myrvhold.  It was embarrassing for the company at large.  It was excruciating for the executives who were deposed or called to testify and explain their e-mails.  Microsoft did it’s duty to ensure that the troublesome behaviors got eliminated as a result of the DOJ case.  There were annual compliance trainings to make sure everyone understood their responsibilities under the DOJ ruling.  The legal team carefully reviewed marketing and PR communications.  Because of this oversight, employees were extremely cautious about what they would write in an e-mail, leading to lots of e-mail exchanges that concluded with “let’s talk about thisin person”.  Personally, I was cautioned a number of times for using the word “bundling” because the DOJ case revolved around Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.  One big, embarrassing lawsuit and employees became much more cautious about what they said, to who and by what medium.  Transparency suffered.

Microsoft’s response to the DOJ ruling made them much less transparent.  Other businesses that are not transparent are defense contractors.  They deal in classified information which, by definition, can only be shared with people based on their security clearance.  Recent massive disclosures by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning not withstanding.  At the other end of the spectrum you have Silicon Valley startups like Square and Buffer who have made a commitment to internal and external transparency that go way beyond common business practice.  Square shares detailed financial information with all staff during regular all-hands meetings.  If you’re thinking about joining Buffer, you can use their public salary calculator to see what you’ll earn working there.  They recently published a revenue dashboard making their financial data available for people outside the company to see.

Square and Buffer share information that 99%+ of companies choose not to share.  They have made a conscious decision to share more information because they believe that they win trust with employees and customers by doing so, and that trust is good for business.  When I subscribed to Buffer to help manage my social media accounts, they won my trust by sending me an email explaining how my subscription fee was distributed across different parts of their organization.

Wherever you work, there is a prevailing climate of transparency. That climate may be more paralyzing like Microsoft or a defense contractor, or more open like Square and Buffer.  When I worked at HTC, we suffered with details of unreleased phones leaking into the public domain.  As a result, access to roadmaps, technical details and release dates were heavily restricted.  My ability to improve transparency within my team had to be within the bounds of the prevailing climate.  Becoming more transparent within my team about phone release dates carried risk because that information wasn’t shared within other teams.  As I tried to generate more transparency, I had to help my team understand the consequences of an inadvertent leak.  I would often tell the team “The worse part of my job is having to fire a good employee because they accidentally disclosed information about an unreleased product” and could cite examples where I’d had to do it.  “This information needs to stay within our team, don’t talk to other employees, don’t talk to your friends and family”.  While I was encouraging them not to be transparent, it helped to build trust because I was trusting them with information.  So, your ability to bring more transparency depends on :

  1. The prevailing climate of transparency in your company
  2. How comfortable you are with the risk of a “bad thing” happening

In my case, sharing release dates within my team had high risk for me personally.  My view was that the risk was worth it because it helped me build trust, and because it helped my team plan their releases better.

Taking The Transparency Journey

Transparency doesn’t happen overnight.  Like any aspect of culture at work, it doesn’t come from a presentation, a poster on the wall, a well-developed training course or saying “transparency” once in a meeting.  It comes from lots of little actions over a period of time.  As a manager you are the source of that change.  It’s your actions that make the difference.  Change comes more quickly when people have good experiences being transparent, and the bad experiences put into context as rare and non-life-threatening events.  It’s up to you to be more transparent, invite more transparency from your team and, most important, support people when transparency leads to some uncomfortable situation.

In part one, I defined 4 different types of transparency, from the perspective of an employee:

Transparency TypePersonalTeam
InformationDo you have the information you need to carry out the duties of your job?Is information broadly and freely shared?
ExpectationDo you understand how your work is evaluated? And what is acceptable conduct in getting it done?Does everyone know what success looks like individually and as a business? Are there clear boundaries of conduct in accomplishing success?
PerspectiveDo you see the business / product / customer / problem the same way as others?Is there a broad, acknowledged view of the problems and challenges that the business faces?
TransparencyDo you understand the reason that you’re doing your job?Is the business / team on a mission that is meaningful to the team? Are people encouraged to be self-aware and communicate in a candid and respectful way?

Your journey starts with deciding where you want to increase transparency: Information, Expectations, Perception or Intent.  You don’t have to work on all 4.  The general trend is that the farther down the list an item is, the harder it is to accomplish because it requires better self-awareness and communication skills, and employees will initially find it more uncomfortable.

Each of the next 4 sections focuses on helping you improve transparency of either Information, Expectations, Perception or Intent.  Read each of these sections to get a sense of what is required to improve transparency in each area.  Your comfort with each section is a cue to where you should start! I’ve used some examples of teams achieving different types of transparency.

Improving Information Transparency

The object here is to move from holding information to sharing information.  Let’s pick through the Buffer example.  In most companies, employees don’t know how much money their colleagues earn.  This information is held by managers and the Human Resources team.  This creates a question, am I getting paid fairly for my contribution relative to my peers?  Be honest, you’ve thought about this.  With no information, people will push for promotions and raises to make sure they’re getting good compensation.  The first step Buffer took, was to make their salary calculation model explicit for everyone within the company.  Now everyone can see how much other people earn based on their title / amount of experience.  That’s great if you already work there.  What if I was considering working at Buffer.  How do I know if their salary will be competitive with my current salary?  Buffer’s next step was to make the salary calculator transparent to potential employees.  Can Buffer competitors can use this to outbid Buffer for talent?  Yes, but Buffer are betting on attracting people who are more interested in the company, its product and its culture than money.

How should you decide what information to be more transparent about?  Do an information inventory, using the five questions below.You only need to include the things that are top of mind.  This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive or unimpeachable list.  It’s a guide to where to start.

  1. What information do you have today that your team, your customers, your peers don’t have?
  2. What information are your team, customers and peers asking for that you currently hold?
  3. What is the historical context for you having that information, and not sharing it with others?
  4. What bad things do you think could happen if that information was shared?
  5. What other things might happen if you shared that information?

Once you have this list, review.  Where are the lower risk, high demand areas that you could begin sharing?

Improving Expectations Transparency

The object here is to move from implicit to explicit expectations for conduct and performance.  Buffer have made a massive commitment to transparency, for example their commitment to e-mail transparency means that anyone at the company can see e-mail you send.  That might sound a little scary, but there are big upsides covered in this blog post.  Not only are they setting an expectation that all information is transparent and available to everybody, they have explicit expectations for working with e-mail :

  • if it’s “to” you, you’re expected to reply
  • if you’re specifically cc’d, you’re expected to read it
  • if it’s your own team that’s cc’d, you should read that
  • you should strive to always cc or bcc a list

On behalf of your team, work through the questions below to evaluate how transparent you’re being with expectations.  Sharing information is fairly black or white.  Improving transparency of  expectations, perception and intent requires considerable honesty and self awareness.  Be cautious if your answers to these questions indicate that you have complete transparency of expectations.  You don’t.  Ask a member of your team to tell you what they think your expectations are.If these don’t match your expectations, you have something to investigate.  In these questions, I’ve used the word “values” to represent any customs your company has taken time to write down.  Some companies call these behaviors, competencies or traits.

  1. What are the company / team values that we have written on the wall, in presentations, in orientation materials or as part of our recruitment process?
  2. When I talk about work, what values do I emphasize?  Speed, quality, customer experience, honesty etc.?
  3. When I reward / praise  acknowledge people, what values have they used to get work done?  In other words, do your actions reinforce what you or the company say the values are?
  4. Thinking about how you get work done.  Where do my actions suggest that I value different approaches to work?  It’s really common to say one thing and do something else.  Be honest here and give yourself a break if you find your words and actions are different.
  5. What would happen if I were to tell people that I had recognized the inconsistency, and changed my words or behavior to be consistent?

Transparency of Perception

As human beings, we assume that other people see the world the same way as we do.  Or at least in a very similar way.  The goal here is to be able to share your perspective clearly, and to listen carefully to other people’s perspective.  Ed Catmull of Pixar has an excellent chapter in his book Creativity Inc called The Hidden.In that chapter he explains that he became obsessed with uncovering things that were hidden from his perception.  It started when Steve Jobs told him that eventually a Pixar movie would fail at the box office.  He says “We see things in other people that they do not appear to be aware of, why should we assume ourselves to be different?”

Ed’s goal is to uncover as much as possible about the things he cannot see.  People in his accounting team have a very different perception of his business than the designers or his technology team.  As a manager in a company you do not have a complete view of the whole business or what is happening in your team.  You also don’t know how your team view the company, your product, your competitors etc.  The objective here is to make better decisions by incorporate perceptions of others.  Then you will be able to describe your business, competitors, customers and product in a way that better resonates with your team.  This doesn’t mean you include everyone’s viewpoint, just be more aware of those viewpoints.

  1. What do I tell my team is the current reality for our company / team / business / project / competitor?
  2. What do I think is the current reality?  If there is a difference here, you are trying to create a perception for your team.  You are not being transparent.
  3. Have I asked people who have different perspectives on the business how they view the company / team / business / project / competitor?  What do they tell me?
  4. Does their input match my perspective, or are there differences?  How do I react to those differences?  What can be learned from those differences?  Strong reactions to differences are great areas to explore.  They usually mean you are uncomfortable with what has been said.

Transparency of Intent

The object here is to build trust by being clear about your intent in decisions and actions.  Buffer have handled this beautifully with their adoption of transparency across the company.  They make it very clear it’s about building trust, and improving decision making.  In my experience, people are both surprised and grateful when I make the intent of a question or a statement clear.  Unfortunately many team members think part of their job is to second guess management intent.   To make my intent clear I might say “I’m going to ask this question because I believe the data we have is incomplete and I believe we need complete data to make this decision.  What user events are we not tracking in our BI data?”.   While this feels a little clumsy, or patronizing, at first, people appreciate not having to guess.

  • Think about the last 3 or 4 big decisions, assignments or statements I made to my team, or members of my team.  What was my intent in making that decision and communicating it?
  • Go talk to the people who were affected by that decision.  Ask them, what do they think your intent is?
  • Where is the difference here?  Have you wittingly or unwittingly mislead your team?
  • What would have been different if I had stated my intent clearly?

This Is A Choice And A Commitment

Changing the level of transparency you are offering, and then influencing the level of transparency within your team / company, does not happen quickly.  If you believe that you need to increase transparency, to increase trust, to get better team work and make better decisions, you will need to commit to this.  Having read through this article you get to make a choice about whether a structured, thoughtful approach to increasing transparency is something you want to take on.

Clearly there are risks in increasing transparency.  If you start sharing more roadmap information with partners, they might leak it.  In part one, I mentioned another team that collected information on my team’s projects with the intent of offering to do them more quickly or cheaply.  It was obvious enough that my managers and I had to decide how to tackle the situation.  We sat down and discussed our team’s principle of transparency, weighed against the risk of losing work to another team.  We decided, as a group, that being transparent was part of our approach to work.  We kept sharing information and we did lose work to that team, but we didn’t lose our identity.  As it turned out, losing some work freed up resources to generate new product ideas and create new projects.  Abundance!  The risk here was real, but in accepting the risk we create new opportunities for ourselves.  The risks don’t always work out quite the way you think they will, and you might find unexpected benefits.

I look forward to hearing your stories about increasing transparency in your team.