Monday, January 19, 2015

Group Works: Transparency

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The tenth and final pattern in this segment is labeled Transparency. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Be open about what's real: feelings, experiences, how decisions get made, finances, and more. Transparency arises from a belief that the free flow of information and taking action in direct and honest ways best serves group needs. Handled well, openness nurtures trust, collaboration, and authentic community.

The basic principle here is straight forward: let all stakeholders know what's going on. Think of it as a corollary of the Golden Rule: share information with others as you would have them share information with you.

Still, there are nuances.

A.  Transparency in Integrating New Members
How thoroughly do you integrate new members, especially about how the group functions?

How easily are new folks brought up to speed about how decisions are made, how proposals get generated, what factors were considered when this topic was previously addressed? 

When the group's process is mysterious (or opaque), it delays integration and reinforces the power gradient between old-timers and newbies—which is likely the opposite of what you say you're trying to do.

B.  Project Transparency
If the group is not diligent about establishing expectations for reporting (to whom, how, with what frequency, and with what level of detail), it can lead to group members not knowing what's going on if they don't happen to be on the project team. While this may not be a problem per se (that is, the project may be proceeding well), it tends to erode a sense of ownership in the project, which can bite you in the butt if difficulties emerge with the project and non-team members had no inkling that this was coming..

C.  Transparency and Bad News
While sharing information is a valuable principle, it turns out that some information is more valuable than others. In particular, it's more important that bad news be shared widely and promptly than good. Let me explain. 

Suppose you have a project that depends on garnering $10,000 in donations to proceed. If you don't learn until two months after the fact that your fundraising campaign actually netted $12,000, nobody's nose is likely to get bent out of joint. On the other hand, if it turns out that your major campaign only generated $2,000 and you didn't hear about it until two months later, there is likely to be a number of unhappy campers—both about the shortfall (jeopardizing the viability of the project) and about the time lag in learning about it. It's pretty hard to solve problems you don't know exist.

There is an understandable tendency to delay the dissemination of bad news (in the hopes that some counterbalancing good news may soften the blow), but this is very risky. When the group eventually finds out about the bad news (and it will), your problem is likely to be compounded: a) the original problem; plus b) the erosion of trust. Not good.

D.  Transparency and Minutia  
Going the other way, sharing information can be taken too far. How much detail is needed; at what point is the volume of reporting obfuscating (where the wheat is lost amidst the chaff; where the signal is drowned in the noise)? 

While the most common way that groups struggle with transparency is not sharing information enough, there can also be trouble if that info is not displayed clearly or the essence is buried amidst mind-numbing minutia. Thus, it's not enough to have regular reports; those reports need to be cogently crafted to make the main points clear.

E.  Honesty as a Weapon  
Finally, it's important to understand that stories can be told in multiple ways, and that sometimes sharing information can be more damaging than trust-building; more embarrassing than illuminating. 

For example, let's go back to the fundraising example I introduced in point C above—the version where the campaign falls short of its goal and creates a shortfall in the budget. Let's further suppose that the group's website was malfunctioning for three crucial days toward the end of their Kickstarter campaign and would-be donors were unable to contribute online. 

In reporting the disappointing news, the essential information is that the fundraising campaign missed its target. It might be interesting—though tangential—to add that the website malfunction probably hurt the campaign and that efforts are underway to ensure that such a thing doesn't happen again. However, sometimes you see reports that go further and actually blame the poor results of the campaign on the website crew (even though it was unlikely that the Kickstarter yield would have been five times higher if the website had been functioning perfectly).

By throwing the website crew under the bus, the fundraising team might be hoping to deflect blame from themselves for what happened, but at a dubious cost. Calling out the web team will almost certainly strain relations between them, to the point where it will be hard for those teams to partner again and have it go well.

Better, I think, is that groups hold themselves to a standard of transparency that's a balance of disclosure and discretion. Tell people what they need to know, yet try to be sensitive to how sharing information can damage relationships, instead of enhance them.

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