Asking Questions about Transparency

It often feels like Obama is in the room with us at RISD these days, raising our collective awareness about a new way of leading marked by transparency. Already we’ve seen his government publishing the appropriations requested, stimulus money granted, and visitors to the White House on the web for all to see. In general, the web has also raised all of our expectations about the availability of information. Transparency now is so much easier to accomplish.

John has taken this to heart, and we’ve seen the mantra of transparency raise all sorts of questions here at RISD. Like many organizations, we seem to be wrestling with transparency’s boundaries. This year, amidst complex budget cuts, we learned about the difference between transparency and clarity — access to all the financial facts versus access to understanding the essential facts that affect us all. In a community of artists and designers, this often means communicating visually. We seem to understand that transparency means a commitment to revealing who makes the decisions, and providing understanding about the basic facts that affect all people in the organization.

But does it stop there? For instance:

Does transparency mean the information shared can’t change? As John has set high expectations for greater transparency, people have come to expect that they will remain informed, even as things change rapidly. So what happens when you go out with “the facts” as they exist at a certain moment in time, and then the facts change? I’m sure we at RISD were not alone in facing this challenge as last year’s financial crisis unfolded. Throughout the process, it became clear that higher expectations for transparency and real-time information must come part and parcel with setting expectations that the information will likely change. In other words, sharing information early and often means all the answers won’t be worked out at the outset. In a creative community where people are accustomed to experiencing shifts in their own work, perhaps this message was more easily received.

Does transparency mean you need to be critiqued? Especially when it comes to decisions in the creative sphere, like whether to push forward with a new experimental initiative or which visual treatment works best, decisions can be made in intuitive leaps rather than incremental steps. They can be based on a feeling. To those of us who bear witness to this type of decision-making, the decisions can seem more abrupt, less predictable, or less “transparent” than decisions where the facts are laid out and logical reasoning is explained. Certainly transparency doesn’t rob decision-makers of their power to make decisions. But just as art students in a critique learn to explain their work and where it came from, transparent leaders do well by revealing their rationale.

In business, many leaders invite “the tough questions,” but in my own experience, there is nowhere leaders are more thoroughly questioned than in academia. The “critical thinking” skills taken from my own liberal arts education, leading me to question how and why decisions are made, are never too far away in this academic environment. Sometimes we call it “critical leading” at RISD: a living, working critique on leadership. Many of the questions we ask don’t yet have answers — which in the “?” environment of academia (versus the action-oriented “!” corporate environment) — feels completely appropriate. Our interest in transparency is collectively piqued; but it’s not yet clear whether transparency will break — or merely bend — the way we’re used to doing things.

Read the original post here, by John Maeda & Becky Bermont @ Harvard Business