How radical transparency can boost team performance
7 MINUTE READ
Guest author Helen Walton is a founder and Chief Commercial Officer at Gamevy, a games company building real-money games and with offices in London, Newcastle, Berlin and Bilbao. The 50 employees work with a flat, no-bosses structure and radical transparency.
It’s really obvious – making good decisions involves having good information.
We all know that, and we talk a great deal about how we transfer knowledge within companies – both the valuable stuff that’s in people’s heads (ideas, process, contacts, vision) and the information we want everyone to know – what’s the big strategy, what’s the priority, what are the risks.
A failure to communicate
How many times have you heard the lament of people in a different office or team:
“We didn’t know the project was delayed!”
“Nobody told us the customer had changed their mind about that feature!”
Despite their investments in intranets, all-hand meetings, and ‘information radiators’, most companies restrict employees’ access to certain types of information.
For example, most employees know little about their company’s cash flow. This means instead of making a straightforward decision on whether to spend money, control processes mean they have to ask a budget holder for permission.
Decisions are often made behind closed doors (or in small email groups). Subsequently only the result is shared, not the thinking that went into the decision. This means some will not be persuaded by reasoning they have not seen, while others will be unable to challenge what might be faulty assumptions.
Then there’s all the time wasted in disseminating those decisions – work that must be redone when priorities suddenly change as a result of new information.
Furthermore hiring and firing, as well as performance reviews, often happen in secret. As well as sometimes being unjust (a ‘manager’s view does not always accord with the views of those who work on the front-line with an individual), this makes it hard for others to really learn about what is valued and what is censured.
Practicing radical transparency
At Gamevy we try and steer clear of these problems by practicing radical transparency. Here’s how we do it:
- All meetings are open – anyone can join any meeting for any reason. All meeting invites have a shared hangout link or happen in the virtual office so that you can see who is currently in a video chat.
- Decision-making is done through shared tool in which work is prioritised by its CD3 score (cost of delay divided by duration – a weighted shortest job first method).
- Discussion happens on a shared tool in which all members can join – internal emails are not allowed and although private one-to-ones do exist, any conversation about work must also go onto the more general information flow.
- The work itself is shared using Trello boards so that we can see how tasks are being done and which sub-task to do next.
- Everyone has access to all files and also has access to look at all financial reports.
- Salaries are shared openly as are any increases in pay.
- Recruitment is an open process and while an internal recruiter helps, interviewing and candidate selection is done by the team who need the resource.
- Major strategy decisions are discussed openly – including “sensitive” material around mergers and acquisitions.
Dealing with information overload
With over 50 staff in three separate locations (soon to be four) and lots of simultaneous products, no one can stay on top of all the information that exists in the company.
You have to be selective about what you stay up to date with. Most people read what happens on about 15-20 flows on projects they are working on or in which they have a general interest.
Because we don’t have any internal emails, this is actually not too hard. If someone wants to attract your attention, they will need to @ you to make sure you get a notification for an action.
That said, it does sometimes feel as if we are drowning in tools – I need up to 5 or 6 applications open at any one time – our video virtual office, our shared discussion board; our shared documentation centre; our shared prioritisation board; our shared Trello boards – plus all the other accoutrements of modern working life.
Getting work done
When we tell people about how we work, they sometimes ask ‘but don’t people just spend all day in meetings if they can join any?’ Actually, most of our staff hate meetings and worry about their days being eaten up with non-productive time. So in fact we have very few – just 4 pre-set a week – and are more likely to have ‘informal chats’ as part of the work.
Some people are horrified at the idea of sharing salaries. Yet doing so surfaces uncomfortable conversations much faster, whether that’s “Why is Dave being paid more than me when he’s lazy and does nothing?” or “We need to recruit a new developer and salaries seem to have gone up – we should all be paid more as well”.
Yes it’s hard to talk about this, but where salaries are secret, a lot of time gets wasted trying to find out what other people get and it allows abuses to creep in. In general, we’d rather have the conversation openly and honestly. Sometimes that includes that we can’t pay more because the company can’t afford it – since the finances are shared openly people know whether that’s true or not.
Of course, staff have to realise that they may need to be discreet about the information they hold about strategy and finance – but treating people as the responsible adults they are seems obvious -that’s why we employed them in the first place.
One of the issues for many tech teams is that sharing information gets handed off to a professional co-ordinator – whether the scrum master, product owner, or traditional ‘manager’. In our system, everyone has responsibility to look for information if they feel they are lacking it and to share it using the tools we have. Whinging that nobody told you something is not an acceptable excuse for us.
Does radical transparency work?
We still have communication gaps where we exclaim “I didn’t know the customer wanted that feature!”, but on the whole we share information better than any other company I have worked in. Radical transparency also reduces management overheads because it enables truly self-organising teams who can contribute more effectively to the company’s overall goals and vision.