Posted On: Wednesday, 01 April 2009 by Rajiv Popat

As acquaintance, who for the purposes of this post we shall refer to as Fred, cried on my shoulder about his incompetent team-lead earning more than double his salary; I was pleasantly surprised at the openness of his organization. It seemed like it would have taken a lot for his organization to make him privy to information that most organizations consider confidential - his immediate reporting manager's salary for instance.

From the tone of authority with which he flaunted the facts and figures pertaining to his organization; it sounded like this was one open organization that had no secrets.  It sounded like his organization was built on a very open culture.

His professional world, seemed like it was made up of what can be generally described as 'transparent'.  

It was after around an hour long conversation that I finally figured out that his professional world was in fact, nowhere close to transparent. The facts and figures Fred was flaunting to me were figures picked up from the gossips that flowed through the corridors of his organization. Questions flashed through my mind as I heard Fred complain away to glory. I didn't think about questions aloud but they were pretty much on these lines:

  1. How did Fred know if any of this information was accurate?
  2. Did his managers even know he had inaccurate information picked out of empty gossips; information that he was using to make judgment calls as important as deciding if he should continue with the organization or look for a different job?
  3. Did Fred himself know the true source of the information; and much more importantly; did Fred even care if the information was accurate or not?

This was clearly a case of the a modern day so-called-flat organization that wasn't quite there. An organization that read a few articles about Google, said - "sure, we can be like that" and then went out and missed the whole point.  After listening to Fred for almost an hour, more than I felt sorry for Fred, I felt sorry for his manager and his organization.

What I was witnessing first hand was what can be otherwise described as lack of information resulting in information being 'constructed'.

Jurgen Appelo in his post on Why Great Managers Have No Secrets describes this phenomenon itself, how it works the dangerous of 'constructed information' and how to prevent it, rather articulately:

When people lack good information, they will invent some information themselves. When they don't know how well their project is doing, they will try to guess. When they don't know how other teams are performing, they will make assumptions. When they don't understand what their colleagues contribute to the organization, they will invent their own reasons. And when they don't know about their manager's personal life, they will gossip about it.

To prevent bad information from flowing through the organization you have to give people good information.

In the same post, Jurgen gives sound advice to managers wanting to push for an open culture and avoid un-necessary gossip or randomly 'generated' information. He explains:

Managers should strive to have no secrets. In our organization I made sure that a lot of information is available for everyone. They all can see who is working on which projects, which features, bugs and issues are being handled, and what the team members' evaluations are of those projects. Our people's personal time sheets are public for all, and so are the ratings they give to indicate how happy they were with their projects.

My next step will be to share more financial details about costs and revenue for each of our projects. In tough economic times it is particularly important to make everyone understand what the organization's financial performance is. As Jack Stack wrote in his book: only when employees care about financial figures, they will think of ways how to improve them.

Some great managers (like John Mackey, Chairman and CEO of Whole Foods Market) even argue that people's salaries should be made public, including their own. After all, if you cannot explain some employee's salary to everyone else in the organization, then how can you expect people to trust you as a manager?

I can agree with that. But I also understand that you cannot change an organization's culture overnight. It would be very unwise to start publishing everyone's salaries when there's no culture of doing so. But you have to start somewhere.

As managers we love the idea of the team being completely transparent. When something is broken, we want to hear it; when things don't work we want to be involved; when a team member is thinking of quitting we want to be informed so that we can make alternate arrangements.  The problem with transparency however; is that it doesn't work one way.

You can chose between a transparent flat culture and a highly political one; but if you pick transparency the same employees who look at you in the eye and tell you how badly broken their project is; over a cup of coffee; will ask you what your salary is over an informal lunch.

It doesn't stop there. If these guys are smart, besides being open, they will also form their own opinions on how much you should be paid and then make intelligent mental judgments on whether you justify your salary.

Before you go out there and blow your trumpet of transparency; what I intend to do with this post, is to tell you dear reader, that it is perfectly healthy for this to happen in your organization; if you consider it transparent. If you have a kick-ass team of developers; and a huge part of your team cannot justify your salary; you probably don't deserve it.

The short point of the long winded is simple; you can't pick the direction and the exact level of transparency you want to have within an organization. Open transparent culture is something that you need to inject in the DNA of an organization. It is a road on which organizations choose to travel life-long and get better over time.

If you're going to take your first three steps of on the path of transparency and then stop; may I suggest, dear reader, that you do not waste your time trying to being about 'some' level of transparency; because your team will have the fundamental building blocks of 'constructing' information and will make educated guesses leaving you in no better position than the hugely political environment full of random gossip your started off with in the first place.

If however, you are going to go all the way eventually and are willing to walk this path with life-long commitment you just might see the passionate commitments developers have for their jobs, their teams and their workplaces.

Transparency is not something that you can just expect as a manager but not give back. It is not something where you can freeze the exact level of transparency you want. You can't have some of it and then stop; because if you do than what you are basically left with is a culture that's not transparent; a culture where constructed information and random rumors are given room to flourish.

Put simply, transparency comes at a price and is often rather expensive. It is a commitment; a way not life; not just a buzz word you put on your website. 

If you've taken your first steps towards walking the life-long path of transparency; but are not quite there yet; all you have to do is keep nudging yourself and your team to get a little more transparent each day; each year. Very soon you'll see a level of maturity from your employees that you never even dreamt of. I wish you good luck.

If you're not walking down the transparency path; I wish you good luck anyway. You're going to need it. Lots of it.  

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