Is that camera switched on?
Other illogical human tendencies get in the way when it comes to transparency. There are certain things about the way our brains work where logically we think one thing but emotionally we feel another and they’re not joined up. (An example of this is face time, Some bosses who insist “It’s all about productivity; people don’t need to be in the office,” But they also admit that secretly they like being able to look up and see their people being productive at the desk across from theirs.)
The head of a London-based communications agency told us that – again, counterintuitively – that too much transparency between agency and clients can limit a team’s creativity. Clients tend to shut down the most innovative ideas at an early stage and creatives find themselves second-guessing and going for safe creative options. In addition, clients may not understand how the creative process works: they focus on how much time it took the team to create a winning idea, not how much value that idea is generating. This means that if a genius idea is arrived at quickly, and clients know this, they can feel cheated.
Elsewhere in organisations, we’ve found further well-intentioned transparency efforts that have unexpected consequences. One company that started to film every meeting in the spirit of openness found that executives became careful not to say anything negative or damaging in meetings and instead held the important conversations when the camera was turned off. Transparency breeds complicit behaviour.
People need to operate in psychological safety, able to brainstorm and think crazy thoughts in a trusted environment. In short, you limit creativity and innovation by constantly looking over people’s shoulders. It’s more than just micromanagement: people who are always being evaluated are unlikely to step outside of what they know will work. They will curtail interesting discussions because they don’t want to look foolish.
So how can you move towards greater transparency without scaring your staff or your clients?
1. Have windows that are open at critical junctures. The pharmaceutical company GSK is doing this. In 2008 it created a new model for its drug discovery operation, creating 38 Discovery Performance Units, each of which was given three years of funding. GSK’s group head of R&D Moncef Slaoui told us, “We wanted to give them enough runway to be able to truly prospect a scientific hypothesis. Give them an investment and then three years later hold them accountable and assess.”
2. Give your people a voice. Don’t just throw information at them. Make sure they have the opportunity to tell you what they think about it or you’ll end up with frustrated, cynical staff.
3. Find a way to curate and moderate information. Large volumes of data are next to useless if a person is offered no sensible way of accessing what might actually be relevant to them.
4. Help your employees deal with the ramifications of what they are told. Not all the information you put on show will be welcome – especially if it concerns their own poor performance. The flip side of the transparency coin is accountability and this might be new for some people. So make sure there’s support in place when people find out something useful but harsh.
Finally, let’s look at how those few companies that are obsessed with radical transparency manage to do it successfully. American asset manager Bridgewater is one such company, which really emphasises transparency and thrives on it. The secret may be to do with the amount of power they hand out along with the information. Our hunch is that the more decision-making power is spread around, the more transparency people can handle.
The bottom line is this. If you’re using transparency to improve your reputation then you’re probably going to get yourself into trouble. If, however, you’re changing internal culture so the firm can handle more transparency, you’re heading in the right direction.
So think through what you’re trying to achieve. If you want people to have more of the right information so you can respond more quickly to changing conditions and make better decisions, then great. Create a culture around that and your company will be more agile and probably more productive. But if you’re pursuing transparency just to keep up with the zeitgeist (when what you really want is to rule your staff with a rod of iron), then you risk running into trouble. Transparency needs to be interwoven with democracy.