How to Build a Radical Transparency Culture

March 26, 2021

Radical Transparency

Well-funded organizations commonly fumble with projects, and even get outpaced by smaller underdogs, often due to a failure to unite employees under similar administrative policies.

Because of this, different team members selectively adhere to managerial rules depending on the extent to which these rules serve them, especially in the near-term.

Developers may neglect deadlines and decide to develop a product before submitting it to avoid constant testing, which they may view as an interruption. And some team members may assess a version of software that is different or older than another version being worked on.

One effective approach is radical transparency—the deliberate and frequent sharing of information with leaders and coworkers. Radical transparency drastically increases openness in work processes and relevant data. But before we explore how radical transparency can impact an organization, let’s dissect this concept further. 

Essential: Principles  of Radical Transparency


Radical transparency doesn’t always manifest in the same way when applied. Organizational values and goals differ from one organization to another, so it’s crucial to understand the underlying principles of radical transparency to remain on track.

Mutual Agreement

Radical transparency starts with person-to-person interactions. Team leaders in pursuit of more transparency ought to start with the nearest individual. It will likely be trickier to bundle people up at once and impose a new culture on them instantly.

Approaching team members on a one-on-one basis can help discover the similarities and differences in how different members perceive radical transparency. Some departments might have more inherent difficulties with transparency than others.

Eventually, you’ll have a more refined picture of what radical transparency should look like within your organization once everyone is on board.

Establishing Boundaries

An organization should establish some limits to transparency.

Some sections of an organization may be working on proprietary technology, making it difficult for them to share some information because of legal restrictions. 

Radical transparency may have a short-term negative effect on productivity, especially when a team is dealing with an emergency. Be sure to scrutinize work processes to identify areas where increased transparency may not be effective.

Eliminating Secrecy

Secret conversations don’t always happen because people are trying to sabotage the organization or conspire against a particular team member. More often than not, they are driven by someone’s fear of an extreme reaction toward bad news, like a technical setback or going over budget.

Secrecy may also fester when some employees feel like they are in a less valued class as they see others get priority when they ask for assistance. Radical transparency aims to create an environment where people are less skeptical about having information, such as their recent performance, out in the open.

Leaders should help team members understand the benefits of receiving honest feedback. Honesty is ultimately more important than avoiding stepping on people’s toes. Radical candor is one philosophy of gaining trust through communication.

Why is Transparency Good for Business?

Now that we have a decent idea of what radical transparency champions, let’s look at some of the benefits and success stories related to this concept.

Attractive Work Environment

An organization with a strong culture of transparency is more likely to have many people wanting to work for it. Keep in mind that transparency in this case isn’t limited to employee relationships. It also has a lot to do with how open employees can be with the public about certain aspects of projects they are working on.

People also pay attention to how organizations deal with reviews and press on public forums and platforms. Transparency makes it easier for employees to act in unison when responding to any queries, complaints, and other shortfalls involving the public since there’s less worry and uncertainty about what to disclose.

Higher Team Performance

When organizations practice radical transparency, many employees get to benefit from honest feedback on their work in a timely manner. You have fewer scenarios where someone is going down the wrong path and everyone is just looking on.

As employees learn more about what can help them improve quickly, you start to witness marginal gains in the quality of their work and how fast they deliver. This can eventually boost team performance since problems aren’t swept under the rug or put on hold to be dealt with through a singular activity or program in the future.

Increased Psychological Safety

Organization’s always benefit from employees who are in a positive psychological state. There are certain aspects of an employee’s life outside work that affect their psychological state and are out of the employer’s control. 

This is why organizations should emphasize workplace factors that affect employees’ psychological state, such as psychological safety. This refers to how safe employees feel they are to voice their concerns to specific coworkers or their entire team.

Radical transparency can help foster this sense of safety and make it easier to reveal or discover issues that would’ve remained hidden.

Improved Employee Engagement

Many business leaders either don’t know or don’t truly understand the concept of employee engagement and why it’s important. A disengaged employee can lead to a mentality that focuses on the path of least resistance and stop at the bare minimum expected of them. This mentality can cause some organizations to stagnate.

Needles to say, an engaged employee goes beyond their deliverables. They’re attentive in problem solving and alert to a new way of tackling a task. This means that on top of meeting their KPIs, they are intuitive and innovative in the way they work, which leaves the organization with new lessons on how to be more efficient.

Employee engagement can lead to new ideas for products and services with their own revenue streams. Radical transparency compels employees to be on the lookout for any flaws in each other’s approach to work, improving employee engagement.

How Radical Transparency has Impacted Different Businesses

Many businesses that adopt radical transparency have benefitted tremendously. Here are a few brief examples:

  •  Buffer, the social media tool company, made a strategic move to share a lot of possibly sensitive data like salaries, sales numbers, and revenue allocation, a move which increased the trust that both consumers and potential investors had in them.
  • When FitBit faced concerns over the massive amounts of customer data they collect, they decided to institute a culture of constantly updating their privacy policy and letting customers know which data points they collect, how they use them, and the difference between collection of adult customer data and child customer data.
  • Patagonia is another more recent case of successful radical transparency. Both employees and customers can easily find out details about the outdoor clothing company’s supply chain. This includes how they source their raw materials and the working conditions of those who produce these materials. Transparency has not only put employees at ease regarding the company’s sourcing ethics but also made customers more understanding when it comes to the prices of Patagonia’s products.

Never-the-less, there are cases worth noting, where radical transparency wasn’t as successful. For instance, Bridgewater Associates, whose Founder Ray Dalio coined Radical Transparency, recently came under heat as they faced claims of intimidation and creating a fear-ridden company culture.

Though Dalio came out to offer clarity on the purpose of some workplace policies, like video recordings of various activities and restrictions on cellphones in certain parts of their work premises, the company continues to face an increasing number of lawsuits and losses. On top of that, the company’s baseball cards, which essentially published employees’ pulse survey results, included subjective metrics like trustworthiness.

Needless to say, individual assessments on such qualities can be biased and some employees suffered lower morale after this sharing, which contributed to the firm’s high and costly employee turnover rate.

How to Build a Radical Transparency Culture Alongside Agile

When pursuing radical transparency, it is important to start small since sudden expansive shifts in culture can catch people off-guard and be perceived as micromanagement. Here are a few suggestions on how to get started: 

  • Start a status communication via email on a weekly basis.
  • Create a board where Objectives and Key Results (OKR) can be shared. Say you want to infuse this transparency into an Agile team, you can have employees update this board with increases or decreases in KR numbers. This way, teammates playing different roles can get a better understanding of how much more work they are going to have to add be it testing, correcting errors, etc.
  • As you get deeper into this approach, you can harness technology to design and install systems that display information within the workplace with alert modes for instant updates. You can set up these systems to receive progress-related information from team members, then process and make it shareable and visible in remote applications.
  • Create new channels and groups in collaboration, team management, and communication software like Slack dedicated to sharing setbacks and possible solutions.
  • Take advantage of in-person opportunities such as when you bump into a colleague in the lobby or hallway. Create some one-on-one time with a team member after a meeting to hear their grievances and plan on how to involve other team members where need be.
  • Set up appointments with other stakeholders to let them know how the team is performing and the driving factors behind their performance.

 Agile-leaning employees may often complain about the rigidity of senior management when it comes to transparency. However, it is advisable to think about the information you feel would be helpful but is unavailable and make comparisons with what you’ve made available or withheld. From there, you can start sharing what you know others may need and in turn encourage them to reciprocate.

Søren Pedersen

Co-founder of Buildingbettersoftware and Agile Leadership Coach

Søren Pedersen is a strategic leadership consultant and international speaker. With more than fifteen years of software development experience at LEGO, Bang & Olufsen, and Systematic, Pedersen knows how to help clients meet their digital transformation goals by obtaining organizational efficiency, alignment, and quality assurance across organizational hierarchies and value chains. Using Agile methodologies, he specializes in value stream conversion, leadership coaching, and transformation project analysis and execution. He’s spoken at DevOps London, is a contributor for The DevOps Institute, and is a Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner.

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