Transparency and visibility

In agile organisations we talk extensively about transparency and visibility; they are key concepts in Agile Scrum. But they are also misused and misunderstood terms.

Mastering transparency and visibility is a powerful tool in the never-ending struggle to achieve organisational efficiency and maintain company culture, yet the approaches to creating visibility and transparency are rarely talked about.

Some definitions

Even basic definitions are hard to pin down. The definition of visibility as "the state of being able to see or be seen" is semantically very similar to that of transparent, "easy to perceive or detect"

The scrum guide talks about transparency as follows (my highlighting):

"Significant aspects of the process must be visible to those responsible for the outcome. Transparency requires those aspects be defined by a common standard so observers share a common understanding of what is being seen."

This implies that visibility is about being able to see what's going on, whereas transparency is about being able to understand it easily.

I'm going to focus more on organisational visibility and transparency, where the meanings are have a different nuance. If something or someone is visible within an organisation, then it's not just that it's possible to see it/them, but actually pretty hard to miss. To make something visible in an organisation, it'll be talked or even shouted about, promoted on internal or external communication channels, and made obvious in many different ways. Transparency is more cultural, creating an environment where all information is discoverable and easy to access, even if it's not shouted about.

The dream

With both agile and organisational definitions of visibility and transparency, the intent is the same: create modern, efficient and effective ways of working where people are not hindered by ignorance or lack of access to data. Break down organisational silos and flatten hierarchies by allowing information to flow unimpeded by bureaucracy. And all those good things.

Tools such as Slack, Google Team Drives, Trello, Dropbox and a host of others all integrate with each other and link up ever so easily. Surely all that's needed is for organisations to shove all their data into easily accessible tooling and leave it there for everyone to see, right?

So how come the left hand still doesn't know what the right hand is doing?

Barriers to visibility

Here's the twist - there's no better place to hide a nugget of useful information than in a mountain of data noise.

Publishing and sharing all your data in a bid to be transparent can actually make visibility decline because it's harder for people to find the most relevant or useful information in amongst all the noise. Even worse, if you're in the habit of not removing or updating old copies or inaccuracies from your shared information, then people start to question the validity of the good stuff even when they find it. Eventually, they stop even looking.

It doesn't even have to be wrong or poor quality information to undermine visibility. There might be a thousand pieces of correct data points, but only one that's relevant to me. In order to create a culture of visibility, there also needs to be the ability to target your audience, whether it's internal or external to the organisation, with only the data that's relevant to them. Visibility doesn't mean throwing 100% of the data at me and hoping that I notice the 5% that I need to know about, it's about making sure that the 5% I need to know about is lit up in neon for me, while my colleague sitting next to me who needs to know something different has the same treatment for them.

The more data you share, the harder it is to maintain. Not just the content, but the structure and the discoverability and/or targetting. Yet maintaining high quality data sources that are easily navigated is the cornerstone of visibility. There's no shortcut - it just takes time and effort.

Barriers to transparency

It's easy to say that you have a culture of transparency but much harder to actually act on it.

Not being transparent is a much lower-risk option. Failing to share information that you could have shared is never going to get you in as much trouble as sharing information which really needed to stay private. We teach our developers to think about the principle of least privilege as they code, and warn our everyone to be considering data protection in the ways they handle data.

Some topics fall into grey areas, and others feel challenging especially if they're personal topics. For example, am I allowed to tell my colleagues what pay rise I got? Am I failing to be transparent if I want to keep it private? What about that time that a colleague left the company in a hurry - what happened? If I know, am I allowed to say?

It's easy to publish bland safe data - the number of users, the monthly and quarterly turnover, the roadmap. But that's not going to create a culture of transparency. Transparency comes from the edge cases, the uncomfortable situations and a level of active decision making around where to draw the line (rather than passive decision making, the "not sure so we'd better not" kind of decisions). It requires constant modelling of behaviours from leadership and constant reinforcement.

If being transparent with your data isn't continually challenging and uncomfortable, then you're probably not doing it right.

In summary

Creating a visible and transparent organisation is hard work. It requires constant cleaning and tidying of information, and constant challenge and uncomfortable decisions about how much to be transparent about.

And yet, to take advantage of the kind of culture and organisational effectiveness that come from agile ways of working, both transparency and visibility are key. Communication must be underpinned by these principles in order to facilitate the flat hierarchies and self-organising teams that people want to achieve.

Above all, getting this right creates a culture where people feel they are both trusted and can trust one another. The lack of ambiguity and the openness that comes with a transparent culture creates safety, which can foster creativity and lead to a more inclusive culture. The effort may be high, but the rewards are large.