Transparency seems to be the trend du jour these days and often is connected with recent financial or government debacles. This post does not focus on the issues impacting our economy and corporate governance, but delves into transparency within product management.
My First Encounter with Transparency
Fresh out of school and into the first few days of a new job, I met the director of operations who immediately told me “If you have any questions or concerns, my door is always open.” He then proceeded to go into his office and close the door.
For the next year or so, I rarely saw him, except when executives showed up, or during a post-crisis debriefing where he declared a victory over some issue and claimed the glory for himself. This story is true, but not an example of transparency. Invisibility is not Transparency.
Transparency and Candor
In Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, the authors share, “When we speak of transparency and creating a culture of candor, we are really talking about the free flow of information within an organization and between the organization and its many stakeholders, including the public.”
“When we talk about information flow, we are not talking about some mysterious process. It simply means that critical information gets to the right person at the right time and for the right reason.”
Isn’t that what product management is all about? Product Management as an organization is the conduit of outside information and we should have a culture of candor and transparency.
However, in many organizations, product management is relegated to “hoarding requirements” and nothing more. Why? I believe it’s due to the fact that the team hasn’t built a level of transparency within its organization, product management leadership doesn’t effectively or consistently know how to get the right information into the hands of senior management and executives, there’s limited understanding as to the value of product management and finally, by human nature we often collect or horde information and hold on to it until we feel it’s time to share or someone asks to give the information. What can we do to improve transparency in product management?
Transparency and Product Management
In the Strategic Role of Product Management, Pragmatic Marketing’s Steve Johnson emphasized, “The strategic role of product management is to be messenger of the market, delivering information to the departments that need market facts to make decisions.”
In a perfect world, product management would ooze transparency and information would flow easily and without hesitation. So, why isn’t this happening?
From Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor we learn, “In a rational universe, organizations and individuals would embrace transparency on both ethical and practical grounds, as the state in which it is easiest to accomplish one’s goals. But that is rarely the case. Even as global forces tug us toward greater openness, powerful countervailing forces tend to stymie candor and transparency.”
Product management is no different. As a product manager or leader within product management, we have to be prepared, and step forward with valid information, data and artifacts. This applies to the messenger of the market aspects, but more important is bringing forward the information that substantiates and finalizes many of the decisions we make internally.
How do product management and its leadership create transparency? It has to start with team communications. As a leader do you hold regular small group, one-on-one sessions or off-site meetings to elicit information, seek advice and listen?
Here’s an approach that I was involved in several years ago. Every Friday, around 4:00pm, the entire product management teams (there were about 30 of us) would quietly leave the office and get together at the neighborhood watering hole.
One of the Product Management leaders aptly named it the weekly COSM. COSM stood for “Company Off-Site Meeting.” While many took the opportunity to decompress from a week of product management activities, travel, etc., several of the leadership stood silently listening, occasionally laughing about the craziness of the week, but always asking questions and soliciting input on how the teams could improve. This informal setting was a convenient way to connect with each other and for the leadership to hear firsthand what may not have been shared in an office setting.
The informal get together was vital in building camaraderie, but more importantly we were creating transparency by providing another consistent way to openly communicate while allowing everyone to contribute. We built a common product management language and although some of us came through prior company acquisitions, we learned how to communicate and share ideas without hesitation. We were current on corporate events and actions, we knew each other’s business unit strategy, challenges and successes and we shared ideas and war stories on product strategy, execution and who had the best go-to-market execution. I will always remember how the leadership team had an open mind and open ears and was willing to apply these principles.
In Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor they share; “Effective leaders find their own ways to elicit many points of view. The CEO of a Pacific Rim bank, for instance, schedules twenty days each year to meet with groups of his top eight hundred people, forty at a time. Aware that isolation in a corner office may weaken his ability to make good decisions, he seeks frank feedback from many sources on a regular basis.”
Second, if we have a tendency to hoard information and only share those things that we deem important, then we’re not completely transparent. We have to break old habits and openly provide all information to improve the decision-making and leadership process.
Transparency Doesn’t Disappear
“It almost goes without saying that complete transparency is not possible, nor even desirable in most situations.” However, product management and its leadership must look for ways to open the flow of information, provide consistent communications and improve the level of transparency in their team and organization. When product management fails to enable transparency, their value decreases and they become invisible.