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Do, or do not. There is no try.

Today I was thinking about what it means to be transparent (after much discussion yesterday at the Open IAI Open Discussion). The Wikipedia entry on the topic is a good start: Transparency, implies openness, communication and accountability.

Transparency is commonly used politically as a reactive outcry in response to corruption, suspicious secrecy and privacy of what should otherwise be public. I wish it was thought of more as positive intent than a reaction to badness, but at least it’s more prevalent than it used to be. In the context of the IA Institute, I definitely want to frame the conversation about transparency in those different terms: Transparency as something to aspire to as an organization, a desire to be open, to facilitate and encourage communication and the courage to be held accountable – internally and externally.

It’s very easy to rally around this idea, but how easy is it to actually live that — or “implement” it throughout an organization? I’m trying to learn more about that through the Open IAI. From the moment Matt, Russ and I decided to do this, I committed to really focus on the specific actions that would enable this transparency.

So far what I’ve learned is that it certainly involves letting go and getting comfortable with the notion that you might fuck up. Really, if you are committed to letting people see what’s going on — how the sausage is made (damn, I hate this expression but it’s so useful) — then they are going to see stuff that you may not be proud of in hindsight. It may not even be something very big, probably something you’d just downplay because it didn’t really impact anyone. Hopefully, by being transparent about it, they WON’T let you slide and will point it out, and complain, and talk about it and this and that, and you’ll learn from it. Even if you learned from it before they knew or said anything.

For example, the chat we had last night. Just one announcement would probably have gotten a handful or people there and we could have had our one hour of conversation as planned. I would have considered that successful, but we spent time figuring out the best way to do it (video chat? something else? what’s the best video chat?), brought it up through all the different channels we had with the time available (Twitter, Facebook, IAI Discussion list, personal emails, acquaintances and work relationships – at least for me), spent 3 ours chatting instead of 1 because everyone was engaged and kept asking questions, tried to capture a summary for people who couldn’t be there, surveyed people who attended to find out how it could be done better and if it was valuable, etc.

I definitely think these steps make something as simple as a little online discussion a lot more relevant. It’s funny because it WAS just a chat. There was really nothing special about it as a chat. It wasn’t even amazing. It was fun and productive, but anyone could have this same discussion at any time. My hope is that people do see in this tiny little example, that a conscious effort to be transparent means a more valuable outcome for all. (That’s my hope in hindsight, my original intent was to first, have a good discussion and second, to learn from it so it can be even better next time and really practice what we are ‘preaching’.)

This is an attempt to take actions that allow for the openness, communication and accountability that a “transparent” group needs to take. Transparency for me is about a more human and direct engagement, not ‘bursts of communication’ (that’s a CYA approach in my opinion – it’s keeping people ‘in the loop’ enough that they don’t resent/hate/complain/ask questions). For example, I wrote down all these things we did for the Open Discussion above – sounds great, right? I didn’t mention that when I created a survey asking for feedback, I didn’t ask if I could share the feedback, if I could track their IPs (turns out the survey tool does that even though I didn’t ask! – don’t worry, I have no idea what to do with that) nor did I tell them what I was going to do with that info other than the generic “it will help us make it better”. With that:

For the respondents of the Open IAI Open Discussion:

Thanks for the feedback. Now that I’ve read it, I really want to share, but I never asked if I could. My bad, I will definitely do that next time. Meanwhile, I turned all your good thinking into an incognito cloud so I could share something without making you think I am evil/inconsiderate/oblivious:

Feedback Cloud

Ok, so this is so small that if you are still reading this you may think it’s insignificant. That was my first reaction, but then I stepped back and thought about how being transparent is about being forthcoming about what’s going on, not what you want other people to perceive about what’s going on. It’s still a small example, but I’ll be sure to share my bigger screw ups as they happen. Stay tuned.

So, transparency — how do you live that? What I’m learning with this is what the old master told us long ago (in 1980): “Do… or do not. There is no try.”

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Livia said,

September 11, 2008 @ 1:28 am

Just came across the concept of ‘Radical Transparency’ and it seems absolutely relevant to this post. I particularly like this point: “Radical transparency is much more transparent than accountability. It requires decision making to be transparent right from the beginning of the decision making process, while accountability is a process of verifying the quality of decisions or actions after they have been taken. This difference implies that while accountability generally implements some sort of punishment mechanism against individuals or institutions judged to have taken poor quality decisions or actions, after those decisions have been taken or actions carried out, radical transparency encourages corrections and improvements to decisions to be made long before poor quality decisions have the chance to be enacted. Hence, radical transparency potentially helps avoid the need for punishment mechanisms.”

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James Melzer said,

September 11, 2008 @ 10:44 am

I have a little experience with government, at least US federal gov’t, and its entire governance system is designed with this in mind (although often with the precisely opposite intent). The government keeps detailed records on it’s activities to ensure accountability. As you said, accountability and transparency are very different animals. The government actually throws away deliberative records; that is, they do not expose their decision-making process. I haven’t researched this, but my understaning is this is done for two reasons: 1) simple expedience to produce decisions quickly, and 2) to provide decision-makers with the leeway to hammer out a decision without interests looking over their shoulders every second. Now, on a grand scale with millions of actors that might make sense (politics aside), but on a smaller scale, like IAI with only a few dozen actors, it is a terrible model.

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James Melzer said,

September 11, 2008 @ 10:46 am

I wrote that on my phone, so please excuse the typos…

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Livia said,

September 11, 2008 @ 11:52 am

So James, any thoughts on how we could have a more overt process without too much overhead? That seems challenging and I can appreciate why government goes the other way to produce decisions quickly.

And by not too much I mean, enough that it ensures that transparency is there but not enough to overwhelm us in minutia and administrative overhead.

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James Melzer said,

September 11, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

I think one of the things the gov’t struggles with is equity. If they listen to one constituency’s feedback, they have to include everyone to be fair. Including everyone becomes a logistical nightmare and slows the process to a standstill. That’s the risk.

I think your Y!Live meeting is a great case study in this. It was awesome and fun and useful. But it was also three hours long, heavily spammed and not particularly productive. A small cadre meeting in private would have produced more but shared less, so a balance is needed. When should everyone get involved?

It would be appropriate to tailor the method of transparency to the task. This means agreeing on procedures and tools for the BoD and the initiative leads to open up their process. There are places where publishing minutes or letting people listen in make sense – like routine Board meetings. It shares an appropriate amount of information and intimacy without getting in the way of business. But for vision meetings and volunteer-oriented discussions, opening it all the way up might be just fine.

Figuring out the right balance will take some experimentation and trail-and-error. But I agree with you that erring on the side of ‘too open’ is a good idea until a better balance is reached.

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