Transparency in a company does a lot of great things. Perhaps first among them is it builds trust. Transparency also creates the potential for broader employee participation in the analysis and investigation that proceeds major strategic decisions. If you can share an opportunity and your ideas early, you can tap your internal brain trust and improve your odds of success, I believe. What I’ve recently figured out, through some painful experience, is that taking advantage of the potential that transparency creates requires more than openness from the leadership of the company. It also requires what I’ll call “positive engagement” on the part of employees.
Atomic Object has recently been investigating what is, for us, a fairly major strategic opportunity. There are three people whose job description includes strategic work: me, Shawn Crowley, and Mike Marsiglia. (That’s not to say other people at Atomic don’t think strategically or generate ideas, just that we’re the ones who are expected to do so.) With this particular opportunity we were fully transparent with the company very early on. So early on, in fact, that we were still in the “vision and possibility” stage, and had not yet fleshed out a plan or assessed all the risks. The situation was evolving rapidly, much was unknown, and the opportunity presented certainly wasn’t on our list for 2013. During the course of our investigation and planning we arranged a lunch meeting for anyone interested in hearing where things stood. We filled them in on how things were progressing and what we’d learned, giving everyone the chance to ask questions. My goal for the meeting was to maintain the high level of trust we have through transparency so that we could benefit from a greater diversity of perspectives and start building support for the initiative.
The lunch meeting was well attended. Of the 30 or so people in the Grand Rapids office that day, we had 20-25 present. We started out with a summary of where things were and where we thought they might be going. We shared the outlines of the plan, pointed out how it had evolved, and then opened things up for general discussion. Relatively few people asked questions or spoke up. No comments or observations about the upside or possible positive outcomes were raised. Risks were raised, and for those that we had previously identified and addressed, our plan for mitigation was not acknowledged. Fear was a common theme. Overall, from my perspective, the meeting was de-energizing and not helpful. I came away feeling that no one saw any value in the opportunity. Most people seemed frozen by a fear of change and their reaction felt like a lack of trust in us (myself, Shawn, and Mike) to evaluate the opportunity carefully, or execute on it successfully. At least that’s the story I was telling myself later that afternoon. Transparency wasn’t feeling so great to me that day.
The next morning at our company standup meeting I shared my frustration and perspective on the lunch meeting. Our standups never last more than 5 minutes, by design, so I didn’t belabor the point but I was honest about how the experience made me feel. We’ve been using Crucial Conversations as a framework for handling difficult subjects and experiences, and I tried to apply that model to this situation. Immediately after standup, 10 or so people spontaneously coalesced around me in what became a very interesting, lively, and valuable exchange.
What I learned from the discussion was that the story I was telling myself (“people don’t trust me, they fear any change, they have no vision, they think we’re going to be duped”, etc) was very much at odds with what the participants of the ill-fated lunch meeting were thinking. What I learned was that their level of trust and respect for us made them assume the opportunity was a good one, and they just needed to think about downside risk. (Going quickly to risk and corner cases might be an occupational hazard of software developers.) No one bothered to point out the positives because either, they thought them obvious, or, they didn’t want to look like sycophants. The strong message was that the transparency of the lunch discussion was very valuable and appreciated.
The irony of this experience was that the very transparency that fosters trust in me by our employees had stressed my trust in them. The secondary standup meeting crystallized something in my brain: the idea that transparency and participation in strategic decisions are not merely a right of the employees of Atomic Object, but also come with a corresponding responsibility. Not upholding this responsibility takes you out of the conversation and jeopardizes your right.
I call this responsibility “positive engagement”. Risks and possible negative outcomes must always be considered. But simply listing all the ways something could go wrong isn’t terribly helpful. After all, it’s easy to generate such a list for any sufficiently interesting or complex initiative. Identifying risk and suggesting ways to better understand or mitigate those risks is what I consider positive engagement.
Some of these same issues came up when we opened our office in Detroit a year ago, so I’ll use that as an example.
“The Detroit talent market is bad. We won’t be able to find anyone to hire.”
“The Detroit hiring market makes me nervous. Let’s research the local CS programs and talk to companies like us in the area.”
Intentionally as a group, and unselfconsciously as individuals, reviewing and voicing the upside and possible positive outcomes of an initiative is another aspect of positive engagement. We might learn something from the diversity of our positive viewpoints, as well as the negative ones. Getting the un-spoken positives into the open helps balance the negatives and helps us avoid the mistake I made in the story I told myself following the lunch meeting (“everyone fears change; no one trusts our vision”).
“If we had a Detroit office, we would be so much closer to our clients on the east side of the state. They’d benefit and so would we.”
We scheduled another update lunch a couple of weeks after the first one. We had similar turnout and interest levels. This time, however, there was a more balanced discussion about the pros and cons of the opportunity. There were concrete suggestions on how we might further understand and mitigate risks. Some excitement and interest in the vision was expressed. Questions were asked about specific details. The tone and tenure of the meeting was very different. The influence of that honest conversation following standup, and the learning that happened as a result, created a better result through positive engagement.