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Full Stack Friday: Radical transparency

Radical transparency

American professional culture is polite and largely political. Messages lose their meaning as they are tailored for reasons other than transmitting that true intent. The most successful organizations and teams know where they stand at all times. They heavily rely on all forms of feedback to continually refine and improve. They need raw (and at times uncomfortable) data and facts to operate with clear direction and minimal waste. These successful organizations take measures to incentivize transparent communication and behavior. Learn how building a culture of transparency fosters healthier organizations and breeds success.

Hear from Devbridge Vice President of Services, Adam Rusciolelli.

Watch the talk:


All right. Well, hello everyone. Thank you for taking a slice of your Friday morning to join me and talk about transparency. So really when I thought about what to talk about in this presentation, it was how organizations can operate more effectively when they say what they mean. And one of the reasons why this is important to me is because the organization that I work for, Devbridge Group, is one in which has a very transparent take on operating. I'll share some examples of how that actually is throughout the presentation, and also kind of weave into that my own take on what transparency is. We will take questions, please use the Q&A and not the chat if possible. Put them in there, and then at the end, we'll run through those questions as many as we can in the time we have.

So anyway, first off, I want to thank Ian for this fantastic picture here. These sweet glasses, Ian is the guy that puts together all the video for us, and he's fantastic. So I want to get a set of these shades when they're available. I'm Adam Rusciolelli, I'm the VP of the services business here at Devbridge. I've been with the organization about five years. I look after our offices in Chicago, Toronto, and London.

Like I said today, I'm going to talk about transparency, and transparency to me is a bit of a buzzword. And there's a way that I figure out if something is a buzz ord, I call it the buzzword index. I do a Google image search and then the quantity of a stock photo imagery that pops up is usually indicative of how much of a buzzword it is. And today is, it's not about that. Today is no buzzword bullshit. This is just my take on what transparency is and how it makes its way into everyday operations.

So what makes human systems function? What is it? And I'm not talking about these type of human systems, I mean, systems made up of groups of humans, like a household, a team, a partnership, economy, etc, etc. It's really trust and contracts at the end of the day. These systems are really, really dependent on trust and contracts being present. And if you think about it, without trust, you really wouldn't have contracts. You wouldn't enter into a contract with someone that you don't trust. So trust is really the foundation. And part of trust is making sure that you kind of understand that other individual or that other organization that you're engaging with, and you kind of know how they're going to behave and operate.

This is so important that there's actually the global corruption perception index, puts this together. And this kind of through surveys what geographies people perceive as being corrupt or incorrupt. At the end of the day, trust, in contracts, you really have to trust that contracts are going to be enforced to operate in these geographies. And that's why corruption is kind of the opposite of trust.

It all boils down to trust. And what is trust? What does that mean? Why do we like it? It boils down to certainty. The way I kind of define it is, and this is not the textbook definition, but I can expect you to act in a predictable fashion, and I believe the action you will take will be fair to both parties regardless of the circumstance. And I think that that's a really important part there, circumstance, no matter what circumstance, we can't predict every circumstance. Look at COVID, no one saw that one coming, but if I understand the way that you will act in a predictable and fair fashion, I trust you, and whatever's thrown at me, I realize that I can somewhat understand how that's going to play out.

Predictability, fairness. This kind of reminds me of a personal story, in the process of renovating a house that's 105 years old. This is not my house, though I kind of wish it was, but nonetheless, the builder that I'm working with, we went on this journey of building trust throughout. I saw time and time again, we would encounter something, it wasn't as planned. He showed a track record of kind of showing me options, telling me the costs, giving his opinion. So when I get a text message like this, he says, "Adam problem with the sewer connection, broken drain tile, further than we thought. Looked at some options, replace with PVC is the best bet, six or 800 bucks."

He did all the things that I would expect. He said, "I looked at options, this is my recommendation, this is how much it's going to cost." How did I respond? "Thanks Dusko, please proceed." This is a very efficient interaction based on trust. So trust is really key to efficient customer relationships, high performing teams, effective partnerships, good friendships, pretty much anything that ends in a ship. And I don't know if teamship is a word, but if not, it probably should be, teamship.

So why is trust important? What is it about trust that's important? Without inherent trust, you take extra measures to ensure that predictability and fairness. So if I don't trust you, I need to do some extra things to make sure that you're going to act predictably and fair. And in the corporate world, this usually kind of bubbles up in paperwork and meetings, extra paperwork, extra meetings. At the end of the day, it really becomes consumption of resources.Tthose extra majors or resources that are consumed. And we all know resources are not infinite, so that's the challenge.

I've come up with a term that I like to call precautionary overhead. So these are resources, time, money, cognitive load, spent compensating for lack of trust. So if you look at your available resources and then you see, okay, now I got to think about, are they going to do what they say? Will they deliver what they say? I need to start reading between the lines, are they going to try and pull one over on me? You see that precautionary overhead creep into your not limitless amount of resources. How many people have spent extra time reading or writing an email with someone that you don't entirely trust because you know that it could be used against you, you know that they may read it and interpret it differently? There's an excess amount of cognitive load that you spend because there is a lack of trust.

If it's political, what will that coworker, what are they going to do? Are they going to make me look bad so that they can look good? How do I prevent that? How do I word that? Additional precautionary overhead. More on the monetary side. If it's a contract or a trusting relationship between two parties, maybe a client and a provider of some sort, how will I measure if they're acting fair? How will I enforce if it's not fair? Are they going to do what they say? Are they going to deliver what they say they're going to deliver on time? Now you spend legal money trying to figure out and set up that contract, such that you've got some way to kind of claw that back if things don't go as planned.

There are some organizations where this can get to an extreme. The way I look at it is, everything in blue is kind of moving the ball forward. Everything in red is this precautionary overhead. You're not making progress. At the end of the day, it's a bureaucracy. With a lack of trust, you've got all the ingredients for a bureaucracy. So take away one from this presentation, lack of trust breeds inefficiency. And that's the main why. Why is trust important, why is transparency important?

So when is trust earned? Not right away. I think everyone realizes this, but I'm just going to state it, you don't earn trust right away. There was a survey that a SDL put out a few years back, but it takes two years of positive experiences for a brand to be considered as one that someone would rely on. It takes even longer period of time to reach that revenue tipping point, where people will actually spend more money because of the trust that you've earned of that consumer. You can't strong arm it. You cannot force someone to trust you, it just doesn't work that way.

Stephen Covey wrote this book called Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. There's one about families too. I would recommend that you read it. If you haven't, it's really good. But the way he frames it, and I really like it, it's like a trust bank account. You make small deposits through your actions over time, and then those grow with interest. And then you can draw upon that account later on. His quote here, "When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant and effective."

And this reminds me of Dusko, my builder. That was a very, very easy, efficient conversation. I could have said, "Dusko, send me extra quotes," and I'll tell you what, building or rebuilding a house during COVID, you experience enough delays to begin with. Efficiency is important, and that trust, and those deposits in that trust bank account really allow you to operate efficiently.

So you have to show fairness in the most raw form, then build a track record of predictability. You have to demonstrate that fairness. And that's what this process of earning trust is. And I say raw, and I use that word, not because it's, I don't know why I picked that word to be honest, but the way I think of raw is, unedited. And if you think about it, these are inversely proportionally related. So if you demonstrate fairness in a very raw form, the more you do that, the quicker you do that, the more raw it is, the less track record of predictability you need to gain trust.

So if you're constantly kind of hiding things and not being forthright, you're going to need to see a long record of predictability, a long track record. I'll tell you what though, if you show that you screwed up, if you show that there've been issues, if you show what's really happening in a very raw unedited form, you can reduce the amount of time it takes to earn that trust. And that really is transparency. And transparency accelerates trust. That's why this organization chooses to operate in this fashion. That's why Devbridge tries to be as transparent as possible because we understand that healthy relationships, long-term relationships really rely on this trust. And we want to get to that point of trust as quickly as possible.

One of the ways we do that is through, at the end of every sprint, we show a sprint report. This report shows kind of where we are in almost real time as far as the metrics that we put in place at the beginning of a project, how spend is going, how we're doing on scope, etc. This project is green, this one is not, and that's important. Here we've got to spend variance of 14%, and I think before this project finished up, it even got worse than that. The important thing is, it's not always pretty.

It reminds me of an example, I think it was maybe three, four years back, we started with a client, and at the beginning of the project, this is kind of how we painted it. It was a nice meandering pathway, we kind of saw what we needed to do. Nice forest there. We put together our estimate. This is the first project with this client, big financial services client. We get off and running, it's probably two sprints in, and we realized that we're probably looking at something a bit more like this. When we got down into the weeds, we realized there were some errors on the estimation side, the client had done a few things that probably weren't so beneficial to put in together a good estimate. And on top of that, forming, storming, norming, all of those, we were coming at it with somewhat of a slow start.

We realized that, and transparency is one of our core values. You reach a fork, what do you do? Do you try and kind of plow through it? Not bring it up in front of the client? Hope that it gets better and then you can recover? A lot of people do that. Or you say, okay, we've got a problem here. We need some help. We need to kind of reframe this. We need to look at this again. That's the route we took. I think it was sprint two, we produced a report very similar to this showing that we were off on budget. It was probably a 30%, 40% miss that we realized right away. We put in place those metrics. They were surprised that we were that transparent.

We put in place a plan, and we were going to have regular updates on how we were kind of improving upon that. We were able to pull it back together. I mean, that's another important part. You can't just be transparent and not stand behind your work. We're able to pull it together in a very transparent fashion. And then I think it was maybe four weeks later, the phone rings, they want us to look at a separate thread of work in another area because of that transparency, because of that trust that we were able to accelerate building with them.

My son is really into science so we're always looking at science videos and things like that. But this concept of how water vapor forms is interesting to me. So water vapor will eventually form under perfect conditions. Pressure's got to be just right, etc, humidity, that takes a long time. The reality is, the way most water vapor forms is there's a impurity, a nucleation site, a piece of dust out there that the water vapor actually begins to condense around. And that's how clouds form and rain and plants grow, etc, etc. That dust is essential.

The transparency aspect exposes those imperfections, and you need the dust to get the water. You need to show transparency to bring credibility to what you're doing. If you're just showing that everything's fine all the time, then you're questioning whether that person is really being transparent or not. Imperfections and vulnerabilities, increased credibility, they accelerate the building of trust. Takeaway number two.

So how do you do transparency? I can say this, you don't do it halfway. You don't do it half-ass. You will end up in trouble, because a single lie discovered is enough to create a doubt in every other truth expressed. It's something you kind of have to go all in on. It's got to become a core value. And since it's a core value, you've got to do it all the time and you have to do it with everyone.

We often as, an organization, answer both tactical and strategic questions by asking ourselves this question. You walk around and you're debating on how to handle something, and you'll hear someone say, well, is that transparent? And you think, well, you know what, it's not. This is the way that I need to have to follow through on that. So, if you do it right, it becomes a core value, and actually becomes kind of like a mission statement or a guiding principle on how you evaluate individual situations that you encounter.

So I'll share a few ways that we do this here at Devbridge. First off, it is one of our core values, it's one of our six core values. And one that we take, like I said, pretty seriously. You'll see this thrown around a good bit in our internal social media application and emails. People say, well, that's not very transparent or hey, way to be transparent. The first real exposure I got to this was when I wrote an email to a client, then I walked out. I talked with the president of RMS who had been cc'd, and he said, "Adam, that email was bad." And I thought, whoa, that was interesting. That's like, boom, in my face.

At first, I was kind of like, I didn't like the feeling of that. And then when I sat down and thought about it, we talked about what I could have done differently, I realized, you know what, it was a shitty email. I thought about that. The alternative would have been, he says nothing. Politically correct, not upsetting anyone. Walks in the other office and talks to the CEO and says, "You know what, Adam's writing bad emails." How does that make me better? How does that let me know where I stand? How does that help me become a person that's constantly growing?

So the first element that we do is constant feedback. There's feedback at the conversation level, kind of like I just mentioned, after a meeting, people walk out and I'll say, "What'd you think? How'd that go? What could I have done differently?" This is a regular habit of individuals within the organization. Most people have a weekly one-on-one with their manager where they're getting feedback, providing feedback. We do annual reviews. We do quarterly reviews. We do 360s. There's a lot of feedback popping in and out all around.

We're completely open with our financials. So the financials are up, believe it or not, in real-time. So if someone produces an invoice that shows up within like 30 minutes on these big TVs that are all around the office, everyone knows where we are along with our financial goals and the overall financial operation of the business. We do audits. We're a private company yet Martin the CEO, and I'll call him the King of transparency here, he always said, "We're going to run Devbridge as if it were a publicly-traded company." So we do an external audit, not because we have to, but because we want to make sure that we're being transparent. We want to make sure that we're doing things the right way. And when we're not, that's exposed and we figure out how to fix it.

We do quarterly Q&A sessions. We do some live ones as well as you can see here in this picture. And it's unfiltered. People can send questions in unfiltered, and we answer those. I mean, the top question there was not an easy question to answer. We believe that's the right way to do it. We make sure that our clients, on the external side now, we make sure that our clients are all using the same shared tools. In this case, it's JIRA, it's the backlog management tool. We insist that our clients be in and amongst the tools that our teams use on a day to day, that way they can see what's happening, they can ask questions, they can answer questions. There's a whole level of communication feedback that's happening.

And when we see that they're slacking off, if clients are slacking off from using those tools of engagement, in those tools we bring that up and we push that as a potential blocker. We say, we need to have more involvement from your working team to make sure that we're getting quick feedback and accurate feedback and honest feedback.

We have a tool called the PowerUp app, and this is pulling from that JIRA, the backlog management system, our time logging system, all of those different systems and providing real live feedback to both internal and external stakeholders. And they can log in and see who's working on what, when. We log on all of our time down to 15-minute increments, logging time is something that consultancies have to do, that's how we get paid, that's our revenue stream. But we log those down to 15-minute increments.

And on each invoice, this is an example of invoice entries, you put what user story you're working on, you put what you're actually doing. And that drives a large amount of accountability. I think that's another advantage, when you write down, and I was a product manager when I first joined, when you write down what you are working on and you know that others are going to see that, you really question whether you're driving the right amount of value with your time. Was that valuable to the client? Would I pay for that if I were in their shoes and I read this?

So, transparency brings accountability, accountability I believe brings the best outcome. You're not going to hear someone say, boy, that person was too accountable. It's always, I believe something better official for a working relationship.

We also do kind of a quarterly business review, we call them a state of the union meeting. And in these meetings, we meet with client key stakeholders and we have very honest, real conversations about what's happening. This is an example I pulled, we were having a lot of trouble with environment uptime. We raise this issue again and again with this client. We said we need help because you are wasting a lot of money, we're wasting a lot of time on environment stability. You can see 24% of the time when developers logged into work, they couldn't because environments were down.

So we had this meeting and people were in the room that were responsible for this, and we raised this in a very transparent fashion, not trying to throw anyone under the bus, but at the end of the day, we needed people to take more action. And the big culprit here was bureaucracy. There was a lot of bureaucracy around how things were set up, how these environments were deployed and maintained. And we were trying to cut through that. It was an uncomfortable meeting.

After that, we did see improvements in the environment uptime, and a key stakeholder during the next meeting said, "I hear you've been hurting some feelings. To make in this environment, I may need you to hurt some more feelings." And to be honest, sometimes we need to hurt feelings in a way to make forward progress.

The key takeaway here, takeaway number three, transparency is not a part-time activity, it's something you need to do all the time, whether that's internal, external with everyone, because if you're not transparent all the time, you can do more damage than good.

Isn't that level of transparency risky? Yes, it is. And we have failed. We have failed and we will fail again, I'm sure. If you adopt some level of transparency within your organization, you will probably fail and you will fail again. But if you look at those failures, you may say the wrong thing, you could hurt some feelings, something could be used against you. Not great, but at the same time, if you look on the other side, you can create a toxic environment. You can have mistrust, inefficiencies, paranoia, assumptions that are incorrect, back chatter. It's not easy. If you look at the faces on this panel, same picture from before, it's not easy. It's not always easy to be transparent and straightforward. But the reality is people want the truth.

Someone will say, I got good news and bad news. What do you want first? I'd say, most people say, give me the bad news. No one says, well, don't give me the bad news, I only want the good news. People want the truth, whether it's good or bad, they want the truth. So in this case, I'm sorry, Jack Nicholson, you were wrong, people can handle the truth and they really do want it.

Oftentimes, when the truth is something that's not great, it gets buried. It goes below the surface, people bury it away. The problem with truth is, it's buoyant, it floats. It's going to come back to the surface. All that time too, you've got fear, speculation, anxiety, a lot of things happening that are not healthy if you're not sharing what's actually going on.

The strategy there is hope then. We bury this truth, like I said, at the very beginning with that example, we reached that fork in the road. You can either kind of expose it or you can kind of bury it and hope that you can recover before that buoyant truth reaches the surface. All the while you've got lost time. Lost time where you could have had more people engaged in resolving that issue, understanding the true situation at hand and how they can contribute to resolving that.

COVID. I don't even have to say what that is. People recognize this image from every other news article that's out there right now. But this was one that was kind of a test of our transparency within the organization. We saw this coming, offices went remote. We knew we had to do something to help with increasing that level of transparency, increasing that communication. We went to weekly emails. So the CEO of the company began sending out weekly emails of what's happening day-to-day within the organization. It's an eye test there, it's not meant to be read through all the way, but in these emails, try to give context. And this was one of the tougher emails that went out across the organization.

I'll tell you why I'm sharing this here in a second, but he gives context, right? Another week, mixed signals from our clients, global markets. We continue to hold strong right now, but the impacts of this virus and the economy and our clients, the impact on our clients could change quickly.

Reasoning, he provides reasoning. A 20% decline could put us into a situation where costs exceed revenue, which as everyone knows is a problem. Impact. What's going to happen now? And this is the tough part. To help manage costs in a situation like this, we've looked at some things that are not so palatable. Delay in salary increases, making people use PTO, reducing working hours, etc, all the way down to at the end, our very last resort would be reduction head count. We will only take these actions of absolutely required.

And then the ask. Now that everyone's in, the truth didn't go under the surface, it stayed on the surface. People are aware of what can they do to contribute? The good news is we've got some time to improve this. We need to focus effort on closing these engagements. It listed the engagements to focus on.

The feedback from that. Martin, good email, clearly laid out. We know what we need to do. Martin, I'm not sure if you get much feedback on these, but thank you for the openness and informative view of the situation. A Lithuanian colleague wrote Labas, which is hello. If after such a message, someone says we're not transparent, I will not know what to think of that person. So, really good feedback. Not a pleasant topic, but at the same time, people are happy to understand what's going on, and on a fairly consistent cadence.

So, transparency is like a cold pool. It's tough to get into it, but once you're in, it's quite refreshing. It's scary. Takeaway number four, it's scary. Once you're established, it is refreshing, it is reassuring.

So where do I get started? How do I get started on this? Not here. You don't start, it's a core value, we're going to do this, we're doing all the time with everyone. You're asking for a disaster. You have to ramp in slowly. The challenge is, if you come in and say, listen, I'm going to be 100% transparent, you're going to put yourself at information, disparity, disadvantage. People are going to know everything about you, they could use that against you. It's just not fair. It's not a good way to do it. It's not an individual game. It's not a single-player game. It's a team sport. If you go into it without kind of getting more people on board, you're going to lose.

Reminds me Meet the Parents, the circle of trust. And Greg, what you should do, I believe, start with a smaller group. Maybe it's you and a colleague. You know what, let's be 100% transparent. You provide me honest feedback, I'm going to provide you honest feedback and we're going to do that. Maybe it's your small team. You say, in this team, we're going to be 100% transparent, we're going to provide a lot of feedback to each other, we're going to share information. We're going to try and push politics aside. We're going to start from there, we're going to see if we can snowball this into something bigger.

Next, you got to give timely feedback. The decay of relevance of information is really, really critical. If I tell you right after I leave a meeting that you should've done this or you shouldn't have done that, that's different than waiting six months. That's all the time where you could have used that feedback. People won't even remember what meeting you were talking about. If you wait until an annual review to give that feedback, things are really disconnected. It's important to give feedback in a timely fashion. There's some Schitt's Creek here, I love that show, watch it if you haven't.

You got to be genuine. You got to mean what you're saying. If you're not genuine, if you're disingenuous, it's going to blow up in your face. It's a really, really important aspect of being transparent. You have to actually care. If you've read this book or if you're familiar with this, Kim Scott talks about radical candor. The Y axis is how much you care. The top being that you really care, the bottom you don't do as much of a hoot. The X axis is not saying anything, being very passive, versus the right-hand side there, directly challenging things.

So, if you're not genuine and you challenge people, you're going to end up in that bottom right corner, you're going to be obnoxious. Everyone's running that person that gives feedback, and they don't really care. Maybe it's politically motivated, maybe they're just an ass. You don't want to end up in that bottom right-hand corner, you want to end up in that top right-hand corner, where you're giving direct feedback but you're doing it because you really care.

You have to explain your reasoning. What's behind it, how it works. I use a transmission here, I'm a mechanical engineer. But if I turn here, I know that it's going to turn here faster, let's say. I had to do this, I had to make this decision because I knew it would have this outcome. And the Martin email that he wrote there, we're looking at this, this is what's happening on the financial side. We had to do these things or we're entertaining doing these things because it's going to provide this outcome. I can say I'm glad we haven't had to do any of those things in that email, and we're actually doing quite well as an organization. But it was good for people to know that A could cause B, and therefore, that's the reason why we're taking these proactive measures or at least entertaining taking these measures.

One thing to try on the feedback side is, you've probably heard of a compliment sandwich, right? Tell someone what they're doing well. Put in there what they need to work on, what the critical observation is, and then follow it up with a reassurance that they're doing okay. Using that format can sometimes help if you're just getting into this.

It's important to have aligned goals. If your goals are pulling in different directions and then you become transparent about those, I don't know what will happen, but within our organization at least, everyone has revenue goals. At the team level, at the organization level, people can be transparent, and at the end of the day, you can say, listen, I did this and I'm transparent about it because I'm trying to achieve that. And if you're all pulling the same direction, it makes things a hell of a lot easier.

And then lastly, transparency can't just be lip service. You actually have to stand behind it. Again, I talk about that engagement, the picture of the forest there. Yes, we were transparent, we exposed what happened. We put in place what we were going to do. We also had to take a financial hit on that. I mean, you have to stand behind your work. You just can't simply be transparent and not care about the consequences afterward. You have to stand behind your work.

So takeaway number five and the last takeaway, full transparency is not something you adopt overnight. You'll end up in a bad space if you try to do something like that. It's not going to catch on. So in summary, lack of trust breeds inefficiencies. Don't do it. You can't strong arm your way into earning trust, you've got to use the Stephen Covey method of earning that over time.

It's actually the issues, the challenges within a transparent engagement, the screw ups to be frank that help provide credibility and accelerate the growth of trust. You can't do it half-assed, you'll end up in trouble. It's not easy. There are days when you think, wow, this is tough. You will fail at times, you will fail in the future as well. People really do, they want the truth, they can handle it. They crave it. It's not easy at first, but once you get in, it's a nice place to be, it's quite refreshing.

And lastly, you need to be genuine. If you do this without being genuine, you're going to end up in a bad place. Speak the truth. Transparency breeds legitimacy. And that's it.

July 17th, Laura is going to talk about a topic, which is to be announced in her full stack Friday. That probably will be remote as well. Hope you can tune back in for that. She's a great speaker and a great colleague, and always has insight to share. So, tune back in, you'll see more information coming soon. And with that, I thank you for your time and attention. Thanks for tuning in. If you've got any questions, shoot me an email, or send me a note on LinkedIn. I'd love to talk more. All right, take care.

About the event:

Full Stack Friday: Radical transparency

Full Stack Friday is a monthly meet up hosted by Devbridge where we share insights on product development, design, and process. The talks focus on issues relevant to product people and full stack teams. For more information about the next event, contact us directly.

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