The Value of Transparency

Over the last few years, I’ve been a big proponent of transparent, inclusive processes, both within design, product development and across whichever company I was working at. Recently, I was asked directly what I think the value of transparency really is. I mean, doesn’t transparency and inclusivity create a Design By Committee-type environment? Isn’t part of my job as a manager to shield my reports from the regular craziness of a complex organization? Surely I’m not transparent about everything, right?

While there are definitely a few scenarios I’ll refrain from sharing designs or information, which I’ll list out a little later, I otherwise try as much as possible to opt for maximum information sharing. And while I’m not perfect at doing so, I’ve noticed benefits to both the projects and the people I manage.

Transparency builds confidence.

This is true for both design and for people management. With design, and really the entire product development process, the more people who can see what you’re doing and how it’s evolving, the better. Sharing even your earliest thinking allows for overlaps (both coincidental and serendipitous) to reveal themselves, which can enhance your product or, at bare minimum, keep you from t-boning into another product. Design transparency is also a great way to ensure consistency in visual and experience execution, helping identify potential new patterns and where they might fit in across the entire product. Transparency means you’re thinking holistically about your decisions and how they impact the larger product.

Are there a lot of voices at times when we shoot for being as transparent with our processes as possible? Absolutely. But setting up some ground rules ahead of time helps mitigate the risk of being constantly randomized by feedback. Set times for different, relevant groups to weigh in helps a lot, as does setting the expectation that, while anyone should feel free to voice an opinion, you can only guarantee responses to key project stakeholders. What I’ve found is that by simply saying that, only the most passionate people will offer their feedback, and will generally attempt to do so in a thoughtful and constructive way.

In the end, you don’t surprise anyone, which is great since surprise is the #1 cause of angst at every company I’ve ever worked at ever. Obfuscation creates concern (valid or not) and fear about the future. By being open and transparent, by putting your cards all on the table, you’re able to gain more momentum and even support for your work than if you went off into a dark corner and concocted it in secret.

Transparency benefits people you manage.

Largely the same principles apply. I’ve never understood this idea that the people I manage are unable to handle the complexities of a large and constantly-adjusting organization. Yes, I don’t want people spending their time worrying about things they have no control over. But I’ve found that, the less people know, the more they worry about those things. Because whether I’m being forthcoming or not, there’s no stopping the trickle-down of information within any company. And, unfortunately, most of the time that trickle-down information is largely conjecture presented as fact. I can’t count the number of times I’ve personally heard fourth or fifth hand information at places I’ve worked, only to find out later that the truth is very different.

At the end of the day, I’d rather act as the canonical source of truth than let people find out halfway-or-less correct information. So, ever since I started managing people, I’ve been as up front as possible about possible changes that may or may not affect them directly. If I’m not certain something is going to happen (but know it might), I tell them I’m not certain and that I’ll keep them in the loop as we move forward. This is pretty different from the tight, only-communicate-when-you’re-100%-positive stance from managers I’ve had in past companies.

Crazily enough, I’ve never had anyone freak out when discussing potential changes. What I have had is people thank me for keeping them in the loop. My hope (and I think it’s true) is that the people I manage are more confident day to day because they know for sure that if something is changing for them, they won’t find out on the last day or after everyone else. They’ll have heard about the possibility from me as soon as I’m thinking about it. They’ll have been a part of the conversation. They’ll have had their voice heard. Regardless of the outcome, they won’t be surprised (see a trend?). And they know that if they’re getting surprised, that I’m just as surprised. They’re my partners, not pieces on a board.

It’s not our job as managers to protect people from organizational changes. It’s to help talk about and frame those changes for the people we work with. It’s to ensure a constant and transparent flow of information between ourselves and the people we work with. It’s to create trust between ourselves and those who report to us so that, when things get really crazy (and they will), we can weather those times and bank on that trust.

You mentioned exceptions?

Why yes I did! Here is a quick, not-at-all-exhaustive list of things I will sacrifice a bit of transparency for:

  1. Projects that are highly NDA-like and would be bad if they leaked. I get this, I’ve worked on projects like this. It’s a necessary evil, particularly as a company gets really big and takes on big competitors. Transparency inside the project team and with key partners in the org is essential, but I understand why Apple doesn’t send companywide emails about the next version of the iPhone while it’s in development.

  2. Changes that need to be communicated in a certain sequence. I’ve definitely been in situations where you want to talk to certain affected folks before disseminating the changes more broadly. Empathy and thoughtfulness are good reasons to temporarily put a hold on sharing.

  3. If I’m explicitly asked not to share. There are times either someone is telling me something in confidence or wants to share their news/information themselves. This is absolutely fine and if you ask for something to stay between us, that’s where it stays.

At the end of the day, transparency and honesty is everyone’s responsibility. It’s not just design’s, it’s not just product management’s or engineering’s. It’s not just the responsibility of managers’ or those they manage. It takes everyone having a shared understanding and appreciation of transparency to fully realize and take advantage of the benefits. And while such a transition might be painful or frustrating at times, I promise it can be totally worth it.

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