“What do we tell the public?”

You’ve seen it 100 times in movies and TV shows. Something horrible is about to happen—an asteroid is hurtling toward earth, a pandemic is coming, zombies, whatever. Government officials in a secret bunker are arguing about what to do, and the conversation turns to how to alert the public. That’s when one character always says… “We can’t tell the public! It’ll cause a panic!”

Whatever side you take in that movie scene debate, you have to admit the “It’ll cause a panic!” character raises a valid point.

Transparency Can be a Smart Business Strategy, But…

You already know this intuitively and from your own life. Think of just a few of the everyday circumstances in which being transparent could be totally counterproductive.

  • It could ruin a surprise party.
  • It could needlessly upset your young child’s worldview, when you tell her that it was you who put that dollar under her pillow when she lost her baby tooth.
  • It could hurt your friend’s feelings and ruin her night, if you see her at a party and tell her you think her outfit is all wrong.

We believe creating a culture of transparency in your business can be an effective strategy. That’s why our team here at ProductPlan takes an approach that leans toward transparency both internally (we share information openly and often across the company) and externally (we’re quite open as a company with our customers and the market).

We’ve even built a tool into our product roadmap software that helps users facilitate transparency in their own companies: a Sharing Custom Views feature that lets teams share visions, strategies, and tactical-level plans with various internal and external audiences.

But the question “Is transparency a good idea?” can’t be answered intelligently without context. There are contexts in which being transparent can create value for everyone, and others when all you’ll do is unnecessarily upset people. Let’s look at a few examples of each.

Examples of Bad Transparency

Over-communicating

This is a common misinterpretation of organizational transparency. Many companies think that being transparent means telling their customers and the public everything, so they share every detail of their plans, their progress, their setbacks—every step their organization takes.

The problem is, most people who are getting those frequent communications, including even the company’s most devoted customers, aren’t going to find all of those details interesting or worth their time.So in their misguided attempt at transparency, these over-communicators instead just become a nuisance.

Emphasizing the Negative

Companies sometimes also mistakenly believe a culture of transparency means going out of their way to let everyone know all of the bad things happening internally at their organization.

This misread actually makes some intuitive sense: A company might believe that the more candid they are with their market about their internal struggles, the more trust they’ll build.

Problem is, when these companies begin broadcasting all of their negative news, they can actually overdo it and create an exaggerated sense of how bad things are. They might chase away would-be customers who mistakenly view the company as perpetually troubled.

Sharing Problems Without Solutions

Here’s yet another way businesses get transparency wrong. They alert their customers to some piece of bad news— here’s a bug in their software, they’ve lost some customer data, their customer support site is offline—but they fail to offer any solutions to those problems.

From the customer’s point of view, the company that they’ve given their business and their trust just wanted to let them know something bad has happened and… well, that’s about it.

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“Transparency can be a smart business strategy, but avoid over-communicating, emphasizing the negative, or sharing problems without solutions.”

So now customers are upset (even the ones who had no plans of contacting the inaccessible support team and would never have known or cared about the downtime). The relationship between those customers and the company is strained. And the company has lost some trust.

Will this company get much benefit from being transparent? Our guess: Not likely.

Examples of Good Transparency

Sharing Both What You’re Doing and Why You’re Doing It

Transparency can strengthen your relationship with customers and your market only to the extent that the information your company shares actually has value for those audiences.

So simply broadcasting a list of things your team is working on probably won’t be the best use of transparency—because unless your customers know how those items on the list will affect them, sharing it won’t have much value for them.

But if you share your plans for rolling out a new feature for your product and explain why you’re confident the feature will benefit your users, then you’re using transparency effectively.

Sharing Problems With Solutions

Let’s say a user of your software product contacts your Customer Success team to let them know they’ve discovered that a certain action taken in your software causes the whole app to crash.

If you blast out a communication to your entire user base alerting them to the issue, technically you’re being transparent. But you aren’t being helpful.

Now let’s say that as soon as you heard from your Customer Success team about this problem, you and your team instead immediately went to work figuring out both a short-term solution (a workaround in the current product that lets a user complete the task without crashing the app) and a long-term solution (prioritizing that fix for the next release).

If you send out a communication explaining both the bug spotted by a customer and your solutions for it (including the one your users can use right now), you’d be using transparency effectively.

Always Being Honest (Positive, But Honest) With Your Team

Before you should even begin to worry about how much information to share with external audiences like your customer base and the general public, you should first focus on striking the right transparency balance with your own team and the rest of your organization.

Your cross-functional team, after all, will be the ones responsible for helping you deliver a successful product to the market in the first place. The only way to make that happen is to make sure the team is built on open communication and trust.

This is why it’s extremely difficult to be an effective team leader—a key part of a product manager’s job—if you’re keeping information from the team, even when the news is bad. Plus, when you’re transparent with your team about the challenges the project is facing, you also empower your team to make better-informed decisions for the project.

You don’t want to go overboard, though, and bombard your coworkers with every worrisome detail you come across. That can give them an exaggerated sense of the product’s setbacks and undermine their own confidence and enthusiasm.

But if you can find that balance—always sharing as much information as you believe your team needs, but not deluging them with details—you’ll be using transparency intelligently.

Your Transparency Checklist: 5 Things to Ask Yourself

As we stated earlier, the team here at ProductPlan tends to favor transparency (both internally and for our external audiences) whenever possible. But we still take a strategic look at the information we’re considering sharing and weigh the pros and cons before we hit send.

Here’s a simplified version of that strategic approach we take. Have a look at the following checklist of questions to ask yourself about any piece of information you’re considering sharing with your audience.

  1. Will it benefit our customers?
  2. Will it benefit our company?
  3. Will it benefit our product?
  4. Do our customers really want to know about it?
  5. Will it strengthen our relationship with our customers?

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