Published in Business -

On transparency and empowering teams.

Being transparent with data is undoubtedly in vogue. From rating your Uber driver to reviewing dinner on Google, sharing feedback in a public forum is generally par for the course. But what about the workplace? How can we harness the power of performance data to improve ourselves and each other?

Few would doubt that transparency is a vital ingredient in running a digital agency.

With so many different professions, personalities, and skillsets working together and relying on each other, honest communication is essential.

There are some obvious advantages that come from being open with your operational data. The benefits of transparency are crystal clear. That reads like a bad pun, but it’s true.

When we have transparency—and a shared appreciation of the challenges, opportunities, and strategies of the business—the collective value of a team is much greater than the sum of its individual parts.

When an agency is fully transparent, it is efficient. A clear and consolidated understanding ensures everyone is aligned and working towards the same goals.

Daily check-in meetings are just one way the entire team monitors progress, profitability, and planning.

For example, if everyone has access to the same information, decisions can be made quickly and with more confidence, without the need for ‘manager’ input.

Beyond efficiency, transparency enables rapid and iterative improvement. Thanks to advances in technology, we can now provide team members with data and insights into potential areas for improvement, in near real-time.

Say goodbye to bi-annual performance reviews. We can now learn, grow, and refine on the fly.

Critically, access to information that might otherwise be hidden—such as salaries, performance statistics, and project profitability—leads to a feeling of trust and ownership in teams, boosting satisfaction and overall working output. Transparency equates to productivity and higher quality.

But it’s not as simple as flinging open the door to your data. It takes more than just performance dashboards to get the true benefits of agency transparency.

First, establish foresight.

Although intentions are almost always good, transparency can be fraught with danger.

When you open up the operational realities of a business without careful strategy and sensitivity to the potential impact of the data, you could be opening a can of worms.

Once teams have certain insights and information, their opinions or perceptions may change irreversibly. For better or worse.

Unfortunately, you can’t reverse the effect of publishing information; it’s incredibly difficult to put toothpaste back in the tube once it’s out.

It’s all about considered management and clear foresight of potential hazards. Prevention is always better than cure.

So, what can potentially go wrong while embracing transparency? And how can we mitigate the potential for damaging data? Let’s look at a couple of potential scenarios.

What happens when the results look bad?

What if your radically transparent data publicly highlights an employee who is underperforming?

Unsurprisingly, that person probably starts to feel demotivated. Productivity drops. They may start blaming others, they might question themselves. They start to doubt the data, claiming ‘there must be something wrong with the system’. They feel humiliated.

In the worst cases, the rest of the team can become unsettled. ‘What if my name is at the bottom of the list next week?!’

Here’s what to do when results look bad:

  • Anonymize reports that don’t require—or won’t benefit from—identifying specific people. While you could argue that this isn’t truly transparent, the purpose of some reports is to show how the team is performing overall, rather than highlighting or interrogating individual performance. If the intention of the report is to provide a snapshot of results across the agency, keep it anonymous.
  • Give underperforming team members a private ‘heads up’. Remember how I mentioned real-time opportunities for improvement? Here’s your chance to enhance a team member’s performance. If you absolutely must send a report that could potentially affect someone, give that person a sneak peek at the data before the information goes to the wider team. Make sure you give the team member enough time to think about the result, and give them the opportunity to discuss the results if required.

What happens when there’s too much data?

If you’re shooting for true transparency, you must be willing to share everything. Salaries, sales performance, financial operating metrics, satisfaction data, account profitability… the works.

But when we have so much information at our fingertips, it becomes hard to know what to focus on.

No one wants to suffer from analysis paralysis.

The data may suggest a team is achieving wins in some areas but performing poorly in others. It’s hard to establish a valuable story from conflicting numbers.

Further, while transparency can often lead to faster decision making—as I highlighted earlier in this piece—in some situations it can actually slow things down. When everyone has a desire to throw in their two cents, we can get stuck in debates that never go anywhere.

Here’s what to do when there’s too much data:

  • Agree on core metrics. Every agency should have a number of core metrics that act as a ‘north star’. Agree on them, and stick to them.
  • Focus on just a few ‘additional’ metrics per fortnight, month, or quarter. For everything outside your core metrics, decide as a team what the focus should be for a pre-determined period. For example, “next month, we’ll focus on improving our response time to sales enquiries”. Shout about that data, and turn the volume down on the rest.
  • Don’t confuse ‘transparency’ with ‘authority’. While you should allow teams to share opinions on the data, and provide them with time to formulate a plan of action in response to the information, there’s always the chance they may hit a roadblock. Remember, you still need someone with senior experience to make decisions so that everyone can move on.

Ultimately, transparency in agencies isn’t just about being open with data. While openness is an essential ingredient, it’s also about ensuring teams understand the reason for the data and its impact.

Transparency is about demonstrating to each other that there’s nothing to hide but, more importantly, it’s about setting everyone up for success. Because success is what we’re striving for, really. Transparency is just a means to that end.