My Journey in Radical Transparency

What are you the best at that you enjoy doing the most?


Journey to True Transparency

Transparency is hard and it's scary. I'm having trouble getting comfortable with it myself. We tend to think of a distopian 1984 situation with government oversight and big brother watching. This is not the case at all. That's a closed network with information only flowing in one direction. Very scary, Yes. Transparent, no. Consider what happens as you open up the network and have information flowing in both directions, all the time. That's what happens with True Transparency.

What does it mean to have true transparency?

We need to develop a common language around this topic for private companies and startups . First let's define the different types of transparency.  Dan Kador (@dkador) from Keen IO identifies a couple different types of transparency.

Inadvertent Transparency
Dan talks about this as:
"the kind that’s forced upon the entity that’s trying to keep secrets. Whistleblowers are the most obvious example here. Most of us who can remember a time before the internet existed look favorably on these folks. Snowden’s a perfect example of this. Similarly, Wikileaks revealed some uncomfortable truths (despite whatever we might think about Assange). Alayne Fleischmann has a lot to say about our broken financial systems. These three forced the NSA, the U.S. Government, and Chase, respectively, to publicize (some of) their secrets."
You can now add Sony Pictures to the list. With this type of transparency the information is forced out into the open. The source must then to react to whatever situation is created. Many times this makes them go on the defense and it's not pretty. This begs the question, why was the information held so closely in the first place? Of course there's always a reason but, are those still valid? What if the information was readily available?
Voluntary Transparency
Dan defines this as:
"the kind that’s freely shared. There’s a ton of that out there right now. It’s especially prevalent in the startup world. Companies writing about their plans for the newly raised round of capital. Companies writing about how they run their businesses. Hell, even companies running with completely open books."
This is when information is pro-actively shared. There are significant benefits to this. First, it's a great motivator for accountability. Second, it builds trust. Third, there are no concerns about containing information. This can be done in a variety of different ways for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, we're seeing it done at times as a marketing stunt. Only releasing good news after it happens is not transparency.
The third type is where Dan and I diverge. He talks about emotional transparency:
“something that leaves you feeling vulnerable”
This is where the thought process is discussed in addition to the data that's being shared. This is a very important concept but, it's one that's better discussed within the context of "types of information." This will be addressed in a future post. My next type is:

Exclusionary Transparency

This may seem like an oxymoron but, it's very important to frame the conversation. There's an implied value around transparency that all the pertinent information is being shared.  This also creates an implied context around the data. If this is not the case it's important to define the areas that are not being revealed. Every organization has exclusionary policies. These range from salaries to hiring and firing, research and development to product launches. This helps build the full context around the topic by defining what you don't know.

True Transparency

There's one additional element required to have true transparency. In addition to voluntary and exclusionary there must also be a consistent flow of data. If it's not on a consistent basis then it can't be true transparency. The consistent flow is what reinforces the trust. It's imperative that the information is being shared no matter what story it tells. Many times we see inconsistent timing of the information being shared. This calls into question the purpose of the data and erodes trust.
Ultimately everything we do is transparent to some degree. We leave behind a trail of information that can be pieced together to form a story. The main question is how involved do you want to be in the creation of that story?
  • Della Rucker

    Andy– this is an excellent framing of the issue. Your identification of the need for consistent flow of information (not just in response to an emergency) is crucial, and this might be the first time I’ve seen someone identify that. People often seem to give up on the work required to be transparent because “no one’s paying attention” or “it’s just boring stuff.” The interesting thing now is that it become a question of demonstrable track record– since anyone can go back through your previous posts, reports etc. with little effort, anyone can outset quickly ascertain whether your transparency is legit or just attempting to cover your tail.

    Good lessons in here for my nonprofit and government readers, as well as business. Thanks.

    • Andy White

      Thanks Della. I totally agree with your point. As with most things, it’s the journey that’s most important. If you’re focused on the destination then you’re missing the point.