“How transparent should we be?” Open isn't all or nothing; there's multiple voices and gears

What voice do you use when? Whispering is different from speaking; speaking is different from shouting; a megaphone is different from a press release. How do we navigate these different voices in our daily work?

This is a common question and roadblock for people trying to work more openly in traditional organizations. 

A key concept here is: working open is not all or nothing. It’s not a light switch you flip all the way on or off. It’s more like a dimmer switch, or a cross-fader knob. There’s degrees, or levels of volume, or different “gears of open” you can operate in. You can be a little open, or a lot — depending on where you are in the process and what you’re ready for.


When we encounter resistance from colleagues, it’s often because this nuance isn’t understood. There’s a fear that “open” = “public” = “ready for the whole world to see.”

Here’s how a colleague of mine put it in terms of his own experience at a new job: “In trying to bring open ideas here, I’m meeting two big blockers: firstly, the idea that open = public = high profile, as opposed to open just meaning availableaccessible or modelled for participation. My bosses assume that if it’s at all ‘public,’ it’s high profile. And secondly, the idea that open = blunt force / mass participation. That the ‘public’ is a blunt instrument, rather than an a tiered, granular group of people who can choose to find different ways to engage.”

In practise, this can mean something as simple as publishing a tweet or personal blog post about your work is (in theory) supposed to get routed through an “official” approval process or the Communications Department — which defeats the original point: agility. Showing your work. Thinking out loud. Sometimes you just want to solicit the opinion of a dozen knowledgable colleagues or fellow geeks; not shout from the rooftops, or get your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.

“Public” vs. “private”

Much of this misunderstanding stems from a simplistic dichotomy between “public” versus “private.” But these categories are actually too broad / crude to be useful for most contemporary work. We intuitively understand this in everyday life; we get the difference between whispering, speaking, shouting or “broadcasting” (talking through a megaphone or press release); these differences are natural and we navigate them fairly easily. But work and the new tools available to us — social media, personal web sites / blogs, intranets and wikis, oh my! — are disorienting here; we’re not sure what voice to use when.

Sometimes, when you share a draft or blog post online, it’s like speaking to a group of friends in a crowded restaurant — others might hear you, but who cares? You’re comfortable with speaking out loud in a public space because a) what you’re discussing isn’t particularly sensitive or private, and b) it would be unwieldy and unnecessary to request a private room in the back. I’m not writing for 10,000 people — I’m writing for 10. And it turns out an open link on the web is now generally the easiest and best way to do that. The world’s greatest knowledge management system is just sitting there; so why not use it? 🙂

Common roadblocks

The biases against this everyday openness are psychological and institutional. Leadership often brings psychological bias in the form of “worst-first” thinking (evaluating a new idea by first assessing the worst thing that could possibly happen if it were adopted), institutional egocentrism / solipsism (e.g., “the whole world is anxiously waiting to consume these notes from our last meeting! If we post them the whole Internet will notice!”), and good ole institutional paranoia (e.g., “this might make me look weak / sloppy / my rivals could find ways to use this information against me.”)

What these fears fail to account for is: the huge amount of time and engagement that get wasted by working in the old, slow ways. You’re burning money (and burning out your best talent) my forcing people to hide work and go slow. It may feel “safe” and less risky, but is its actually hugely expensive and risky as well — just in other (less obvious) ways.


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