I ran an exercise where I asked a group of executives “What is transparency?”. Take a moment, think what it means to you and say it out loud before you read the answer I gave.
Transparency is when you give someone the information they need, in the format they need so that they can make the decisions they need to make to fulfill their responsibilities.
Transparency is a collaboration. Sometimes the person asks for the information they need in the format they need. Sometimes the person with the information decides that another person needs it and works out the best format to present it. Formatting the data is often about constructing the context so that the information has meaning.
Transparency is not open kimono, the sharing of all information. It is not drinking from the fire hose, receiving huge quantities of data to be sifted and sorted. It is not the pretense of sharing everything, expecting the receiver to find Transparency in the aacennprrsTy. Transparency is the sharing of information with context to allow everyone in the organisation to achieve their goals. Sometimes the information is focused on an individual or a small group, and sometimes it is shared with the entire organisation. Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to help someone understand that they need the information you are providing.
In “risk managed” cultures, the leadership create an environment where everyone, including themselves, share information so that others can decide and act. In “failure” cultures, the failureship create an environment where information is carefully controlled, and sharing of information can be seen as a crime against the organisation. The failureship do not want information to be freely shared as they want plausible deniability in the case where they fail to fulfill their responsibilities. Speaking truth in a “failure” culture can be career limiting or career destroying.
In “failure” cultures, information is carefully curated and filtered, often translated through several excel sheets, powerpoint decks and summaries until it presents the story that subordinates want the failureship to read… which is the story that the failureship want to read. Drilling into the information requires the failureship to navigate the reverse trail through the organisation, offering the opportunity to correct or delay access to the truth. In a “risk managed” culture, information is automatically assembled to be always available for all concerned, with alerts when appropriate. The information acts as an “invitation to the Gemba” for the leaders in the organisation. “Invitation to the Gemba” is a phrase that Jabe Bloom introduced to indicate that the leadership should not act on the information they receive but rather use it to identify the places where they should “Go to the gemba”, go to where the work is done, and see for themselves what is actually happening.
In a risk managed organisation, the leadership create the culture and environment where everyone is encouraged to provide information to those that need it. They actively work to encourage people to share information up, down and across the organisation. This requires a great deal of work on the part of leaders as they will constantly be employing new people who are used to cultures where sharing of information is forbidden, discouraged, or where information is “power”. Leaders not only send out memos or give organisation wide speeches on the subject, they also encourage it in every interaction or meeting that they attend.
All leaders ask for transparency, they all want to know what is going on. It is their behaviour when they receive information that determines how willing people are to share it. Getting people to share information requires the leadership to build trust. A second question I ask executives is “What do the RAG statuses, Red, Amber and Green” mean to you?”. The traditional meanings are:
- Green – Everything is OK
- Amber – The project might be late
- Red – The project will be late – (actually, it means someone has revealed the truth about what is going on.)
Anyone who has worked in a failure culture knows what happens when someone reports a status with “Amber” and “Red”. It is a very unpleasant process for all involved, the failureship swoop in, possibly deploying someone from outside of the project to find out what is going on, even though the failureship already know. A lot of weight is thrown around with an associated dollop of Kabuki (Japanese theatre with the players cutting all sorts of shapes on the stage) until some sort of reset is performed and the status can return to “Green”. The reset normally involves moving out the target date if it can be negotiated, or reducing the scope until it no longer delivers any real value for the customer. Normality resumes until the next RAG crisis. Everyone knows that nothing good comes from reporting status of “Amber” or “Red”. The failureship lament that most projects are “water melons”. Green on the outside, and red on the inside. They lament that they normally only find out that a project is “Red” when it is too late and they can do nothing about it. They already know what is going on. They find out it is too late because they want to find out too late and make it unpleasant for those that tell them. They do not find out too late as they already know, they are forced to acknowledge the problem publicly when the options to address it have expired.
In a “Risk Managed” culture, the RAG status have a different meaning:
- Green – We are good, and are unaware of any problems that will prevent success.
- Amber – We might need help. There are problems that we might need help addressing. We are signalling that the leadership may need to step in and help.
- Red – We need help. There are problems that we are unable to address and require the support of leadership to address them.
In a “Risk Managed” Culture, the responsibility for delivery remains with the team, including the responsibility for requesting help. No team should be green until they have completed their first end to end production delivery of value. In a “Risk Managed” culture, the leadership act as servant leaders to the team. The leadership work hard to build trust with the team so that there is no barrier to revealing the real status of the delivery. The leadership see it as their responsibility to help the teams. The crime in a “Risk Managed” culture is to sit on information that you know others need.
Transparency is not about systems and reports, it is about how the leadership behave when they encounter transparency or the lack of it.