On Transparency and Openness

19 Apr

We all want to be transparent and open on our teams – don’t we?  Well, at least we want the benefits that come along with it such as:

  • not being surprised at the end of a long project that we are off-course,
  • ability to recognize change early in order to respond to it,
  • a way to build trust in what we are doing,
  • a mechanism for estimation
  • and many more….

However, achieving transparency and openness are more difficult than they might seem to start off with.  One of the primary reasons, is that if you are transparent and open about the work you do, the agreements you make, and the results (or lack thereof) you achieve, you also open yourself up to publicly failing.  And that public failure is extremely painful for most of us.

If you are a coder, can you remember the first time you ever had to pair-program?  If you are a product owner, do you remember a time when you had the team working on the wrong thing and was questioned about it?  For the rest of us out there, can you remember the last time you had someone review your less-than-perfect work?

For most of us – it is uncomfortable having someone review our work and see our mistakes.  But that is what we are asking of people in the agile world:  to pair-program, to build in iterations, to meet the definition of done, to estimate and openly miss those estimates.  And not only that, we are saying that people should do more of it, fail more often so that those failures are smaller, and confront those failures and learn from them.  That’s a TALL order for anyone.

(Unfortunately?), transparency and openness are absolutely necessary for sustained high-performance.  And being able to fail quickly and learn from our mistakes is a hallmark of great teams.  Every single team that I have witnessed achieved hyper-productivity has achieved this state has found a way to be comfortable with failure and leverage it for learning and success.

So, how do you get past that discomfort, pain, and fear?  Well, in many ways you don’t, it will always be there for many of us, however we can make it more palatable and increase the chances of truly achieving and sustaining the benefits by making things safe.

the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss.

In many ways, we feel a risk of injury, danger, or loss when our mistakes are made public.  Are we going to be blamed if our mistakes are visible?  Will it affect our review at the end of the year?  Will someone roll their eyes and say that they can do it much better?  Will we be humiliated or will we lose standing on the team?  These are things that exist in many of our lives at work.  And when they do, we feel unsafe.  And when we feel unsafe, we will shut down and shut down transparency and openness along with it.

So what can we do about this?  Well, we need to make things safe.  How do we make things safe?  As always I don’t have a recipe independent of context, however, here are some effective tactics:

  • Be reflective.  When there is an issue or problem ask yourself how you are part of the problem.  Listen – really listen.  When people feel listened to and acknowledged, they feel valued and they feel more safe – even if they end up being wrong.
  • Respect people.  No matter what you say, or what you do, your opinion of the people you are working with seeps out; sometimes through body language and sometimes through the tone of voice and other means.  You can’t fake respect and everyone can sense it.  So, if you want to create safety, you genuinely have to respect others and see them as equals.  (Anatomy of Peace is a great book on the subject.)
  • One thing my friend Steve Peha does when he is facing a problem with someone else, he addresses himself and his perception of what’s happening and his reactions to the issue at hand instead of (as most of us do) pointing the finger at the other person and telling him/her how they have goofed and upset us.  Christopher Avery’s work on Responsibility Redefined is spot on here.
  • Trust people.  You don’t have to be nieve about it, but start with trust.  You can always re-evaluate if you’ve misplaced your trust.  Trust in another person shows that you see they have value.
  • Focus on the subject – not the people involved – and be ready to be wrong.  It’s ok.  None of us have it all figured out.  So instead of arguing who is right or wrong, focus on the work; the subject – instead of yourself or the other person.

Looking back on this list, it feels woefully inadequate for such an important subject.  But it is what I have today.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll have better answers.


Posted by on April 19, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions


Tags: , , ,

4 responses to “On Transparency and Openness

  1. christopheravery

    April 19, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Nicely sad Amr. I like the focus on safety. I’ve been learning recently about something the healthcare industry calls a “just” culture. It means non-punitive in response to mistakes, instead focused on learning/correcting.

    • samadisy

      April 21, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      Thank you Christopher. Having such a culture – where it is safe to make mistakes must be great. So what’s your take on how culture affects individual behavior? Especially for safety, I’ve found it is very brittle – all it needs is one person on the team to sneer at others to shut everyone down.

      • Christopher Avery

        April 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm

        I think you and I are seeing “culture” at different levels of human dynamics Amr. What you are talking about is what I would call group dynamics, or even context — and yes, these things are fluid and responsive.

        I actually think true culture is fairly robust and slow to change — that’s why it “eats strategy for breakfast.” It is also why I don’t buy most of the “culture” change tools and language currently in vogue. “Prove it” I say.

        The organizational culture that allows one individual to sneer and shut down others is the problem I see here, not that individuals choose to sneer. If the organization truly values and respects people, then this should be a red flag and reason for action at selection, orientation, assessment, or even in the course of work with others who have 100% permission and love of their culture to say “take your sneer elsewhere.

  2. samadisy

    April 23, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks Christopher. I get two things from your reply:

    1) They human dynamics regarding an individual is a continuum towards the human dynamics of an organization. Group dynamics, can be called the culture of the team; large group dynamics may be the culture of the organization, and maybe we could call the individual human dynamics “individual culture” 😉

    2) Culture is resilient and, according to my read of your comments, ruthless. That is you don’t step out of bounds of culture without feeling the pain.

    And here are some questions that arise for me:

    1) This is all so complex – overly so. There is probably a generative set of properties/rules that forms the basis of cultures (or group dynamics). I wonder what has been written about this in other disciplines that we can take from?

    2) You are right, there are many people out there saying “here’s how you do it” and they are the organizational/business “self-help” books. But for the individual there are some basic – very simple – approaches (to health) that don’t really need a book. They are simple, but not easy. Namely eat unprocessed foods, stop eating when you are not hungry, and exercise regularly. (That may not be the only answer, but it is one that works for most of us and doesn’t need a book.)

    I wonder if there are a few “simple but not easy” things we can do to change culture?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: