Increase your team’s agility with radical transparency

Posted on October 26, 2020.
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We put a lot of the weight of becoming a customer-centric organization that manages to outcomes and “tests and learns” on the shoulders of our leaders and executives. We ask them for trust and empowerment. We ask them to give up their old command and control ways of working and to reset the definition of success. We ask for the freedom to explore for the best possible solutions to our customers’ problems and we expect them to give us the time it takes to find the best one. That’s a lot to ask of them and when they don’t deliver on these demands 100% we blame them for the failure of agile implementation, our innovation lab or our attempts at listening to the voice of the customer. 

Here’s the reality of the situation: it’s a two-way street. We (the teams doing the work) cannot ask for this level of change from our leaders without changing ourselves as well. Teams want their stakeholders to trust them to solve problems, allow them to listen to customers and empower them to make tactical day-to-day decisions. In many organizations this is a radical shift for these stakeholders. What do we give them in return for that trust?

Transparency. Radical transparency is the proactive sharing of information on a regular cadence both up to your leaders and out to your colleagues. Candidly putting on display your work, wins, failures & learnings is key to building the trust that enables agility. It’s uncomfortable. The work isn’t done and we don’t normally report our progress so frequently. However, this proactive communication with stakeholders reduces stakeholders’ anxiety of not knowing “what the team is working on right now.” If they were dictating features to you, they’d have that answer. If you’re continuously discovering the best path forward and working towards outcomes, they don’t.

If stakeholders get anxious, they ramp up control and increase micromanagement. This is where the agile and lean startup implementations start to fail. This is where the sense and respond loop breaks because what we’re sensing and how we’re responding isn’t obvious to our bosses. Radically transparent communication eases concerns about what the team is doing right now and provides stakeholders that answer. This in turn allows them to be prepared for the eventuality of their boss asking them that question. Being able to say, “The team has seen a 6% increase in return visit rates due to the new post-sale check-in email they built and is now turning their sites to increasing time on site with 3 different options” is a far more compelling answer than “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” . 

What does radical transparency look like? It starts with the realization that you’re going to initially err on the side of overcommunication. At the very least (and this is a very short list) you could:

  • Send a weekly status email
  • Post daily outcome/OKR updates with the deltas from the day before (years ago I worked on a team that would print their KR number daily with a +/- indicator and post these flyers all over the office)
  • Install and design clear information radiators — screens that show your metrics in the office or on a remotely-accessible dashboard in real time
  • Post Slack channel updates that at-mention your stakeholder. This can be done manually or you can automate one of the infinite slack bots to do or prompt for this regularly 
  • Initiate hallway conversations. See someone at the office that has an interest in your project, pull them aside and give them an update. Not going to the office? Ask them to hang on the zoom call for 5 minutes after your team meeting so you can give them a quick update.
  • Ask for or offer up office hours with stakeholders so you can provide insight into the team’s efforts.

Again, this is a short list. There are many other ways for you to increase the transparency of your team’s work whether in the office or remotely. The goal is not to make the list longer but to find the best combination of techniques that provide your stakeholders with the information they need, when they need it. 

It’s easy to blame execs for not “being agile” or “trusting the team.” Rather than getting frustrated or giving up on working in a better way, take a look at it from their point of view. What would you want to know if you were in their shoes? Then start sharing it, regularly, without being asked. Your boss and your team will thank you for it.