Last week we attended the Rebuild21 conference here in Copenhagen. The theme was “rebuilding business for the 21st century”. This appealed a lot to us since there surely is a need for rebuilding. How we build more sustainable businesses, how we find a clearer sense of purpose and how the ways we work together can be rebuilt.
For me, the key takeaway from the conference was the concept of transparency. The need for this seemed to be an underlying theme in most of the talks and sessions. The Western world and Scandinavia, in particular, isn’t exactly North Korea when it comes to transparency but we can still do much much more. I can think about many expressions of transparency (and the need for it)…
- Open and free flowing information in general (as championed by Google, WikiLeaks and countless others.)
- “Whistleblowers” where more and more companies are setting up processes to counter fraud.
- Accountability in supply chains. Here in Denmark, we have recently had some embarrassing cases from large clothing brands that shipped clothes with toxic contents. Their quality controls didn’t work.
- Open book arrangements where partners collaborate to save costs rather than doing “arm’s length” negotiations.
- Financial reporting that includes reporting metrics on employee satisfaction, environmental impact and so on.
- Being open and accountable in our organisations. Sharing lessons from the errors we all make.
What’s stopping us from reaching higher levels of transparency? I think this has to do with trust, courage and power. At gluu, we work with increasing transparency to help organisations change. So how does trust, courage and power become roadblocks in organisations?
In an environment of low trust, many people will hide behind buzzwords, rhetoric and flashy presentations. It will be about keeping up appearances. The prevailing thinking is something like this “it may hurt my position if I say what I really think and feel.” You just don’t feel like standing up to speak if you don’t fully trust your leaders and colleagues. Such low trust environments lead to problems and ideas being suppressed. It also kills any entrepreneurial spirit. It makes change much harder since who wants to enter unknown territory with people they don’t trust? This is probably why the U.S. Marine Corps never leaves any soldiers behind. Trust builds morale.
If an environment of trust provides the platform for change then courage is required to take action. If you feel that someone has your back when you’re more likely to feel courageous. Even organisations with high levels of trust need courageous individuals to challenge conventional thinking and speak openly about problems. This brings me to the concept of power.
Courageous people often reach positions of power. They charge ahead and seize the initiative. While this helps organisations to shape their environments and enter new markets it also crowds out the initiative. What if the person in power is wrong? They sometimes are. In an environment of low trust, people lack the courage to challenge their leaders. This stops progress as everyone digs in and defend their positions.
Only the bold leader can increase transparency throughout the organisation and break through a gridlock of low trust, lack of courage and silo thinking. How? Digital tools can help make day-to-day discussions more shared and open. Fewer closed meetings where only managers speak up. Getting the challenges – no matter how small – to surface in online discussions will show people that others also have doubts, struggle and make mistakes. When new “coalition of the willing” form and communities of practice are created, then trust will increase. Power will flow to the people who express what others are thinking. This will encourage them to act.
So, for me, transparency is what helps me separate the rotten apples from the ones worth eating. It challenges me and it challenges the people around me. It brings us closer to a true meritocracy. Only people with hidden motives and agendas don’t like transparency…