Leaders Should Strive for Clarity, Not Transparency

Earlier this year at the Davos World Economic Forum, I met a president from an Ivy League institution who said to me, “Hey, I know you. You’re the president who blogs.” He asked how it was going, and I talked about my experiments with external blogs, internal anonymous blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other “open-source” platforms as a means to increase transparency. He smiled and said, “That’s never going to work. But hey, if it works, other presidents will be doing it too I’m sure. But we’re waiting to see what happens with you first.”

After my first year of blogging, I can report both success (with those constituents who chose to engage the medium) and failure (with those who did not and ended up further distanced). However, I have learned one very important lesson: transparency and clarity are two completely different things, and in many cases complete clarity should be a leader’s goal rather than complete transparency.

Full transparency is access to all the facts.

But only selective transparency is actually attainable, especially in recessionary times when unpopular decisions need to be made. If you promise full transparency, when you make even one aspect of your business non-transparent — which is often legally and emotionally necessary, especially with personnel matters — people question your credibility.

Often the facts are too complex for those far from the decision to understand. I have found on countless occasions that even with an MBA and years of statistical training as an engineer I scratch my head about some of the numbers I have to manage. Thus to offer a set of raw data to any constituency opens the door to selective interpretation. There is clearly a wide gulf between having access to the facts themselves and having access to an understanding of the facts.

Full clarity is access to understanding the facts.

So they need to be explained, often by a live person. I’ve found that directly addressing live audiences is often the only way to help people make sense of some of the complex numbers I deal with. For the financial presentations I’ve made for the campus, I’ve meticulously designed every slide by myself, with the intent of increasing the possibility for understanding. For the dissemination of complex information, I find the blogs and so forth completely useless. Yet if the constituency doesn’t believe or trust the leader’s interpretation, then even the best-designed presentation can fall flat and make zero impact. That’s where social media can play an important role — in building that trust.

After a year as president, I am ready to reframe the questions about social media as management tools: how can social media increase clarity, not just transparency? For that reason, in my second year, I seek ways to build shared understandings in my community at RISD. I wonder what these means may be. Who knows? It may mean a lot more walking around campus, and a lot less blogging from my desk.

Go & see the original here, by John Maeda & Becky Bermont @ Harvard Business