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Radical transparency - rewriting the rules

Many organisations operating today are shrouded in secrecy. They work on a need-to-know basis. Employees obsess over who knows what, and when and how they came to know it. If they’re ‘disclosed’ on certain projects, their badges - quite literally - grant them access to different meetings or areas of a building. People are asked to sign project-specific, internal non-disclosure agreements, providing additional psychological reinforcement. Secrecy fast becomes a religion that leads to structural hierarchy. The impact on an organization’s culture is intense and enduring.

Before the world became hyper-connected and technological change accelerated, companies grew slowly and steadily over years or even decades. One could argue this hierarchical structuring of knowledge within organisations worked, though I’m not sure I agree. Now, for contemporary, fast-growing organisations, it categorically doesn’t. Modern organisations should be fundamentally opposed to secrecy for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it creates and reinforces unwritten hierarchies. It allows those with a self-inflated view of their importance to impose restrictions, breeds fear and discourages individuals from expanding their horizons. They might not contribute an idea or, at worst, they might avoid calling out errors or inappropriate behaviour for fear of being out of line. Secrecy is a subtle but constant and insidious reminder of rank. In modern organisations everyone matters and everyone should be treated as such. 

Secondly, it’s inefficient. It leads to information silos and discourages cross-functional knowledge sharing. This slows everything down - which is potentially fatal to a business in which success is linked to speed. Where there are lots of moving parts, the intelligence of the many is far better than the knowledge of a few.  

Thirdly, it’s simply unsafe. In high-growth organisations, it’s impossible for a handful of people to know every detail. Members of a small, centralized management team simply cannot keep on top of everything. So they shouldn’t have to. If an organisation is expanding fast, exploring uncharted territories and constantly adding new teams, the most effective way to maintain quality control is to give everyone permission to ‘stop the line’. Everyone’s work is put at risk when people make wrong decisions, so anyone should have the right to call them out and stop the wrong.

For anyone to be able to take action, then everyone should be able to know almost everything. Information (providing it isn’t personal or commercially sensitive, or provided in confidence from third parties) should be liberated – democratized in fact. Whether you’re an entry-level assistant or the CEO, you should have the ability to access strategy, numbers, processes, policies, active discussions, the whole lot.

What’s more, this approach serves as a form of self-protection. It’s inevitable that at a certain stage of a company’s growth, the public, regulatory bodies, and the media will put it under scrutiny. (Aaron Zamost, the Head of Communications at Square, and previously of Google and YouTube, writes eloquently about the media cycle of every company.) 

If a business allows unsavoury acts to exist, hopefully in today’s open society, previously hidden secrets will eventually come out. And the consequences can be near-fatal, even for an established corporation. Think about the impact of the Volkswagen emissions scandal. This is exactly as it should be. It makes for a fair, safe and just society. It pushes businesses’ practices forward too. Just look at what Patagonia have achieved in terms of supply chain transparency.

At Babylon, we place great emphasis on the importance of openness, and extreme transparency is paramount to our culture. It’s our best defence as it leaves us with nothing to hide. Our teams are encouraged to never tolerate or keep quiet about shortcomings. We know there are no skeletons in our closets, and this way, we make sure there never will be. We’re encouraged to expose issues without fear, face them without fail, and fix them with speed to stop them from evolving. As they say, ‘mediocrity is the result of many tough conversations that did not happen.’

Individual and collective accountability is vital when it comes to transparency. We have squads and tribes that take team ownership for each discrete aspect of our work. But in each team, everyone should be given individual responsibility for part of the team’s work. It starts with a debate among key stakeholders, and decisions are reached by consensus, or by the assigned lead failing that. They’re then communicated widely so everyone is aware of the rationale and outcome. Only this way can you expect full commitment. And even then, everyone is allowed to express their disagreement and when necessary, ‘stop the line’.  

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, was right when he said, “There is a virtuous cycle to transparency and a very vicious cycle of obfuscation.” Transparency builds trust, steers innovation, exposes wrongs, and helps build a culture of excellence. Great organisations should never compromise on standards on this front.