Agility in Governance: Organisational Transparency

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Co Authored by Tony Ponton and Phil Gadzinski

As we wrote about in our previous posts, after twenty years of working in agile, non-agile and transitional organisations, we have distilled what agile governance is into a key metapattern and four archetypes we believe are needed to effectively govern any modern system of work – whether we use agile methods in the work or not.


In the spirit of symbolism we see them as the symbol of a “Guiding Hand if you like, “Four fingers and the thumb to lead and enable them”. In this post we will talk to the first of the Fingers  – “Organisational Transparency”. 

The key to agility lies in the speed at which information flows around the organisation, followed by how this information is used in decision making. Transparency is an essential component of speed and also a key enabler for building trust between people and teams. Share everything. Often. This means both the good and the bad information, don’t spin it, be honest , as they say “The truth will set you free”(the Bible, John 8:32) or in this instance will create a culture of trust.

We often talk about transparency as the key to success in agile operating environments, however it’s always hard to lock down in reality. Often it’s just an evolution of scarcity – we don’t have time to communicate or collaborate openly, we focus locally. Sometimes it’s a function of the operating models we create – we create functions based on hierarchy and optimise for them and don’t reward transparency across the walls. We then measure and reward silos individually. This breeds competition between functions and reduces the amount of collaboration we might do instead. Occasionally it’s intentional – machiavellian, corporate politics – protection, ego, status and power. Survival instinct for some is about self preservation and that can often be at the expense of others safety and security.

So what does this need for transparency actually mean for an organisation? There are four key imperatives to consider: 

  1. Transparency scares and intimidates people when it’s not the prevailing culture  – it creates a double edge sword. We get immense value from the accessibility to information. Yet that accessibility, in a culture which is pathological or blame based (per the Westrum Organisational model) can actually lead to negative outcomes for people and their levels of safety. What we want to move toward is a culture where transparency invites inquiry and failures are an opportunity to reflect and improve.
  2. Directional decisions and expedient interventions are often based on limited information, existing mental models and experience and “this is the way we always do this” kind of responses. Increasing the transparency of information, data becoming ubiquitous and accessible, means we can use this for dynamic decision making. 
  3. Embodiment of strategic alignment  – increasing transparency makes it more obvious what our level of clarity is in linkages between strategy and execution – with no transparency there is less clear or no alignment.
  4. Bi Directional flow makes transparency work. Asynchronous flow of information in multiple directions, not planned and sequenced in a single direction, is a key outcome from increasing transparency of the system. Radical transparency not one way flow is key to organisational speed and agility. The world is too complex and fast to rely on a single path and information flow. Too much information; too many insights; too many opportunities can emerge from anywhere at any time to restrict and control flow of information. The explosion of data and our ability to bring it together in a meaningful way can hinder the speed of executing the right things at the right time. The overhead is immense and so is the cost. Radical transparency costs less and is more efficient and effective. 

Building this flow of information to increase quality of decision making, by enabling the collaborative connective tissues of an organisation to create those conversations both horizontally and vertically is a key activity of leaders and managers. This can only be addressed by purposeful organisational and operating model design that is specifically focussed on accelerating the flow of information and the flow of work leading to value. 

Therefore with an accelerated flow of information we get speed to value from better, faster, high quality decision making. 

In our next post we will talk to the Second of the fingers – Work Patterns