Why is transparency like annoying facts?

Close your eyes and remember a time when you were sitting in an auditorium listening to a presentation. Do you remember that as the presenter was going through their material you were forming opinions in your mind? Some of the points you agreed with, some of them you weren’t so sure.

As you widened your awareness to the entire audience you sub-consciously assumed they were having the same thoughts. You thought to yourself “surely everyone is thinking the same thing?”.

But were they? What was everyone else thinking? The reality is that there will be a range of thoughts and opinions. Which is a good thing.

Transparency is like being able to know what everyone is thinking.

Recently I was invited to be a guest lecturer at a University. I used the audience polling app direct poll where the audience voted using a web browser, i.e. their phone. (There are other apps like poll everywhere.) The audience polling was great in creating transparency of what everyone was thinking across the 200+ participants and enriched the shared experience.

At the end of the lecture I asked one final question, “How informative was the lecture?” In other words, how did I do?

Suddenly the transparency, the shared experience, was personal. It was about me. I remember with some trepidation bringing up the survey results. I was about to show the lecture hall what they all thought of me. The image with this post are the results of that question, now there is even more transparency, everyone on the Internet can know how I did.

Of course the Internet is an example of polling. Every time we tick like on FaceBook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, we are sharing our view. We use TripAdvisor, Yelp and others to find out what other people think.

Transparency can be very scary, but it is very powerful. At a joint meeting between the sales teams of two partner companies, (one resold the other’s products), audience polling was used to name the elephant in the room.  The question asked was, how well is the partnership working? When mixed results came up on the screen people were asked to submit reasons why. The number one reason was, lack of trust. They were then asked to submit ways to address the trust issue.

Both companies came away from that session feeling positive. The superficial “partnering” dance was over. What needed to be done was out on the table and agreed actions were approved by both sales teams. Everyone had ownership of the plan.

At an event in New York City the audience was shown a video of an established company’s strategy to fend off the challenge from a disruptive new competitor. The audience was asked if they agreed with the company’s strategy. Using audience polling, eighty percent said “yes”. Next the business strategist Gary Hamel was asked to comment. After his comments the audience was polled again. This time eighty percent said “no”. The spontaneous laughter spoke to the amazement of the change in thinking across the audience.

Transparency like this is great at putting the unspoken issues on the table. It can bring a group of people together to create a shared understanding. It creates immediate, direct feedback which is illuminating for all, but it is very scary if it is directed at you. It takes strong leaders to open up to this level of transparency. Leaders who have the capability to process the level of complexity that transparency brings forward, the annoying facts.

But for some, transparency allows these annoying facts to get in the way of their good story.

Many companies claim to have transparency through processes like their annual employee opinion survey. But there are several problems with the employee opinion survey approach.

The first is that the way the results are explained by upper management often resembles a clumsy interpretative dance. Lots of twists and turns to come up with a good story. “Everyone must have been in a bad mood the day they filled it in, let’s have an ice-cream day to improve morale.” “The reason they don’t understand our strategy is because they didn’t attend the meetings, we must make the meetings mandatory.”

The second issue is nothing seems to happen with the feedback that is provided, apart from ice-cream days and mandatory meetings to listen to senior executives download their strategy from on high.

Worst is when the one up manager’s performance review includes their team's participation rate and positiveness of the responses. This connection to performance reviews can be explicit or implicit. The lesson the managers learn is to discourage open and honest feedback.

I was invited to participate in a senior leader’s offsite meeting where the Executive Vice President was unveiling the new strategy for the division. Imagine my excitement when I walked in and saw audience polling devices on each table. The audience was given some simple warm up questions to make them comfortable with using the devices. It was then that the purpose of the devices was explained. They were part of a team bonding exercise where tables competed against each other in a game of trivial pursuit.

The Executive Vice President presented the new strategy and then verbally asked the audience what did they think of the strategy? The audience hesitated. No one wanted to go first. Then the usual people that speak up at these events, we all have them, spoke up. “We are with you all the way” they cried. “This is something we can really get behind”. By the end less than 5% of the audience provided a response. Satisfied that the new strategy had been accepted the Executive Vice President left the stage to let the next round of trivial pursuit begin.

Sitting in front of every person in the audience was a way to provide one hundred percent participatory, immediate, anonymous, feedback. Maybe not everyone agreed with the vocal 5%? Did people have improvement ideas? Were there thoughts on execution roadblocks? Collectively the group could have created a robust plan to execute a successful strategy, unfortunately the opportunity was missed.

The problem with one hundred percent participation, that is total transparency, is that it is complex. Leaders that embrace this complexity know that it is necessary to be successful. Those that don’t are the wrong leaders.

Transparency is not just naming the elephant in the room it is like inviting a herd of elephants into the conversation. It is letting annoying facts get in the way of a good, simple, convenient story. The problem with ignoring these facts is they don't go away. They lurk around the corners waiting to trip up the strategy, process, project implementation.

Here is how Jim Collins described how the Great leaders invited transparency in;

“Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it some place great.”

The first step was they said, “I don’t really know” and the action was “we’ll figure out” as in we will. Not the CEO or Executive Vice President but the collective team putting the facts on the table.

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U describes this as moving from a process of “downloading” to “presencing”. That is going from being told the answer from above, to one of working together with an open mind, heart and will to create the future together. He says we go from a thinking of “Yeah, I know that already” to one of “I can’t express what I experience in words. My whole being has slowed down. I feel more quiet and present and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself.”

To move from downloading to presencing Sharmer says there needs to be a “crack”. An “aha” moment that people collectively feel where they can no longer work the way they are and need to build together a better future.

Our New York audience felt this crack when 80% went from voting “yes” to voting “no” in less than ten minutes. The spontaneous laughter showed they felt they were “connected to something larger than myself.”

Transparency is accepting that annoying facts are an opportunity to be successful. We may think it will slow us down but to achieve success we have to deal with the facts. As Steve Bono eloquently said, “reality wins”, meaning we will ultimately have to confront these facts, we are only delaying the timing.

Audience polling is one way to achieve transparency. Another way is to have the right measurements in place. Measurements that are aligned to the outcomes our organization wants to achieve and not to the internal functions we perform. More details on measurements can be found at “Do we have the right measurements?

You can read more Frequently Asked Questions for Organizations at www.faqsfororgs.com as well as solutions beginning with Where to Start.

You can subscribe to FAQs for Orgs to receive the weekly update.