Opt-in Transparency

October 12, 2015

Behold… a great way to make your employees feel like shit:

Employee: Yeah… I just don’t really understand why we’re building it out this way. It doesn’t really make sense, and I think it’s going to ultimately be harmful for the company.

Manager: Just build it, please.

This exchange — though not uncommon — isn’t going to go away any time soon. At the end of the day, there’s a power relationship happening, and the employee ain’t gonna be the one to win out.

There’s a way to help combat the effects of it, though: context.

Yeah, but why?

There’s this concept I’ve been fascinated with for the last couple of years, and I’m just going to give it a name: opt-in transparency. Can you be fully open as an organization, but not force that openness upon everyone by default? Basically, I want as many people in the organization to have access to as many things as possible, but we’re all busy, and unless I want to go out of my way to dig into something, my time is respected enough not to bother me with every little detail.

Decision context

Here’s one of my favorite stories from my time at GitHub:

HR was making some change to health insurance. Insurance is not something that’s in my wheelhouse; I’m glad we had good coverage, of course, but I’ve been lucky enough to not be impacted by it one way or another too much.

That said, when the company-wide announcement about the new change in health plans came through, some minor thing in it triggered warning bells in my head. Whoa wait now, this seems a little shittier, what the fuck are they doing here? SOMEONE IS WRONG AND I KNOW THIS BECAUSE IM RIGHT

So I did what any self-aggrandizing self-crowned hero of the people would do: I blew the dust off my special custom-order Flamewar Keyboard 3000, plugged it in, and prepared to really bring the weight of My Unique Perfect Logic™ down on this thread.

Right before I was going to start typing, I noticed that the HR team member who posted the initial thread (thanks Heather!) had three URLs appended to the bottom of the post. These were links to an issue and two pull requests to an internal HR documentation repository where the HR team had discussed the changes that were announced in the thread. Curious, I clicked into them and saw that the discussions themselves spanned several weeks and several hundred comments, all covering the proposed changes.

By the time I finished reading the discussions, I was fully on board with the change, and I found it’s what I would have done had I been in their shoes during the decision process.

That was a pretty powerful realization. It’s one of those things where the output of a decision — in this case, changing insurance — didn’t immediately make sense to me, but the context surrounding the decision made all the sense in the world.

Design context

Over the years I would occasionally butt heads with my friend Kyle Neath, the first designer and former head of product at GitHub.

A lot of it stemmed from my reactions to a possible screens he was designing. I’d say, hey, I’m not sure I really dig the latest comp you posted.

And more often than not — and this is a mark of a great designer — he’d come back with already-sketched pages of same screen pictured six months, twelve months, three years, and five years from now. He gave us context behind his decisions. And almost every single time — that motherfucker — he would win the argument this way. By showing that entire context of his future vision detailed out, I could very comfortably buy into a decision that I don’t necessarily agree with 100% today, because I’ve bought into the steps needed to get to the long-term vision.

Sharing that type of context can be very, very valuable, and it forces you to think broader than just today’s problems.

Async and open

This is part of the reason why I advocate so strongly for remote-first and asynchronous companies. By the very nature of how you work internally, you’re creating self-documenting progress upon which anyone in the future can come back and reflect.

People promote transparency as a huge culture value, and, while I don’t think that’s wrong, it really depends on how you use it. As the company grows larger, I don’t want to be inundated with every single goddamn decision. It becomes a paralyzing aspect of the culture, and pretty soon no one can get anything done. You don’t want to be the company that’s full of shippers who can’t ever get anything shipped.

If, on the other hand, you allow people to opt into the full context of these discussions, you promote a healthy and sheltered creative process, but still encourage others into your discussions only if they are deeply passionate about helping you out. From the outsider’s perspective you might not care about 95% of the discussions happening in the company, but you might spend that remaining 5% on something you can genuinely pitch in and improve.

Opt-in transparency is a good balance of transparency, inclusiveness, and creative problem solving. Try to aim for those goals rather than pushing all your decision making behind closed doors. It’s a better way to create.