Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Transparency is a Prerequisite of Collaboration

You hear about transparency all the time. "We're in a new era of transparency." "We live in a transparent society." But I can't help feeling that while transparency is all around us, when we ask about the benefits of transparency, we often get an opaque answer.

Transparency is in danger of becoming yet another buzzword, like "long tail" or "Web 2.0" whose clarity of meaning is inversely proportional to its usage.

For me, transparency is important because it is a prequisite of collaboration. I think about this all the time in the context of a business. In most businesses, what people do and how they are performing is incredibly untransparent*.

Many people instinctively fear transparency. "If everyone can see what I'm doing, maybe they'll figure out that I'm not doing much!" Or, less cynically, "I haven't got time to explain to everyone what I'm up to. I've got work to do, for cryin' out loud!"

But as an entrepreneur and leader, I need transparency. Especially in a small company with little room for error, I need to know what's going on.

Startups often have greater transparency than larger companies simply because of their size; if everyone is squeezed into a single room, everyone will have a pretty good idea of what the others are working on. But even a one-person company can benefit from transparency.

If you need to make your tasks and priorities clear to others, you are forced to make them clear to yourself.

And once you make your tasks and priorities clear to others, they can help you. That's collaboration**. But if others don't know that you need help, or how they can contribute, don't expect them to spend their precious time dragging it out of you.

For example, one simple way I've promoted transparency is using a wiki (from my investment PBwiki, of course!) to maintain tasks an priorities for each person in the group (this could be a workgroup at a larger company, or the entire company in the case of a startup). I ask each person to answer a few simple questions:

NAME's Job Page

1. My areas of responsibility are....

2. My three top goals are....

3. The tactics I plan to use to accomplish these goals are....

4. My key projects are....

5. The ongoing tasks I perform daily/weekly are....

6. The tasks I want to complete this week are....

7. I'm depending on other people for....

8. Other people are depending on me for....

9. Other thoughts....

While at first it may seem like a pain to keep something like this up to date, it takes only a few minutes a day, and has the added bonus of making it abundantly clear both to you and the folks you work with what you're up to.

The key is questions 7 and 8--by making it explicit what you need from others and inviting them to make it clear what they need from you, you minimize the chances of nasty surprises as deadlines draw near.

If you want to use PBwiki for your own transparency project, visit the Transparency Project wiki that I've created to copy the page template, or live a completely transparent life by posting your own page to the public, a la 43things. Give transparency a whirl, and let me know how it goes for you!

* Sales people are the exception; I met with one of the top executives at Salesforce.com recently, and he explained how their sales model is a well-oiled machine, with about 10 key metrics that they watch like a hawk. Any time one of the metrics deviates from its customary range, they know that they need to fix the machine. Try that with any of your other departments!

** Of course, you do need to make sure that your colleagues are capable of helping you. Check out my post on "Feel for the Game" to determine if they can.


David B. Bohl at SlowDownFAST.com said...


Excellent post. Perhaps transparency has gotten such a bad wrap because it's a concept that's easy to intellectualize, yet very difficult to employ in practice.


Alex said...

This only works if you have a lot of policy built around it - wiki pages have an uncanny ability to fall out of date and add another layer of straw to the information haystack. Unless people really trust that a wiki page will be up to date and accurate, they won't really pay much attention to it.

Which then brings me to my next point, that you're asking people to update both a wiki page and whatever job tracking system you use. It seems unlikely people will keep both properly up to date, especially in a fast moving and small company where much of the collaboration is verbal.

I'd say both sources of information will have a better chance of staying relevant if you can somehow integrate them together. I know you can embed Jira job ticket queries into a Confluence wiki, so that may be a start. (both products are from Atlassian).

Eugene Chan said...

This is a great post. Transparency + Collaboration + Accountability go hand in hand.

ArticulateDad said...

Just happened upon your blog. Nice post. Of course, transparency gets more complicated for entrepreneurs with patent and copyright issues. While the objective of being clear and transparent still holds, the difficulty is being sure that your team really is your team before revealing too much.

I recently had an issue with a couple programmers I wanted to hire to help me out (pre-patent filing) to develop some proofs of concept demos (I wrote about this on my blog OFI/OFO). It eventually became clear that I'm better off filing the patents first, in order to avoid disputes over priority and intellectual property. It's unfortunate, but that's how it goes.

I'll enjoy reading more from you.

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