Poor Uses for Transparency

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In the Agile world we do a lot of things to try and create transparency within our organizations. We put up information radiators like burn down charts, task boards, and cumulative flow diagrams. We put information up on the walls with sticky notes everywhere you turn. We have team synchronization meetings every day. There’s a lot of information flowing around, so is it even possible that transparency can be misused? Is it possible for transparency to go wrong?

In most cases, I think my default answer to this question would be “no” – in general, I’ll take transparency anytime. However I have run across a few situations with transparency that have made me tear my hair out. There are three different cases that I’m thinking of: Frequency of request, Lack of Decisions, and Missing the point: value.

Updating status information on a regular, even frequent, basis can be useful – especially if the work is high priority. However, there is an upper limit beyond which frequent reporting becomes counter productive. It’s one thing to update status once a week, but when it becomes once a day, something has gone wrong. I’m not really sure that there is a discrete boundary beyond which the reporting becomes too much. All I can say is that you know it when you cross it. The problem is, it ends up creating more churn than productive action.

Transparency isn’t all that useful if it doesn’t lead to meaningful action. A lack of decisions is usually an indicator that there is dysfunction that the transparency is not helping to address. In fact, what you are probably finding is that you are only getting superficial transparency. The question is, why aren’t the decisions getting made?

Finally, transparency is only effective if it helps to understand how the organization delivers value. Often times transparency focuses on things that don’t reflect business value. This is missing the point of transparency. It needs to remain focused on the business value.

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