Creating and leading high-performing teams in any setting requires a high-trust environment. A critical component in creating and keeping that trust is complete transparency across the team. Having seen the empowering effect of this simple notion, I regularly reminded my direct-reports that the expectation was, “All cards are face-up on the table for the full team, in every decision and on every topic.”
I first learned the value of this kind of full transparency during my years working in the Mission Control Room while operating Space Shuttles and the International Space Station. Everyone on the team reviewed every report, procedure, and mission-related communication of any kind between Mission Control and the astronauts.
That thorough transparency was never about micro-management. It was in recognition that:
- Every area of responsibility on the team affects the overall risk to the mission (e.g. if any single critical system fails, the entire spacecraft, and all the astronauts, are in jeopardy).
- Any part of the team can and will make a mistake.
- If not caught and corrected, combinations of seemingly small mistakes, or even some single mistakes, could lead to a failed mission or worse.
- Conversely, there is so much talent in every part of the team, that as a team we can catch each other’s mistakes, offer suggestions from different perspectives, and come up with better overall solutions to problems.
Everyone on the team knew that it was team success that mattered, not simply individual performance. “Showing our work” to our peers was not a threat to our individual authority. It was an easy method to get more eyes on every problem and engage broader and deeper expertise to ensure nothing slipped past us. Rather than slowing down decision-making, for decades these teams have routinely discussed and resolved exceptionally complex issues and have been able to take critical actions in minutes to protect a spacecraft hurtling through space.
The same risks often apply in management, where mistakes in one part of a company can have ripple effects that cause problems for other areas. If poorly managed or left unsolved, those problems can cost the company money, erode product quality, bankrupt the company, and in some industries, injure employees and worse.
Just as we discovered in Mission Control, transparency is the simplest way to engage all members of the management team, and with them, the expertise and perspective of the organizations they led for the enterprise. And just like in Mission Control, that greater engagement brings with it better informed, highly-reliable decision-making.
As an executive managing a $650 million/year enterprise, my direct-reports would often quote me before telling me and their peers some “ugly truth” or something they didn’t think I’d want to hear, “Just remember, you always say, all cards on the table…”
Every time they used that quote, it made me smile and think, “Now we’re talking! Now we’re getting to it.” More times than not, what followed was news about a project that was over budget or behind schedule, an unresolved engineering hurdle with an upcoming mission, or some mistake we had made in an earlier decision that was now putting us at risk. Most importantly, it gave the full senior management team and the team’s they led an opportunity to help us find the best solution. In the end, this is never about highlighting some part of the team’s mistakes, it is to ensure the team catches any weakness in our on-going performance.
Of course, transparency does not just protect the boss from the team’s mistakes. It also allows the team to catch and correct the boss’s mistakes, as well as to offer innovations the boss may not see, which I was reminded of as the boss many times.
For example, during a tour in a development lab, I was shown a demonstration version for a new space station simulator based in a desktop personal computer. Seeing a cost saving potential, I suggested several copies be made immediately available for testing by a number of our divisions. Eyes widened around the room, including by several senior managers, but the team saluted and went to work.
After months of mixed reviews, the division responsible for managing and developing our training systems reported, “Look, Paul, this isn’t going to work. We never thought it would, but you told our people to do it, so we did. We can keep throwing money and manpower at it, but the answer won’t change for a long time. However, we can accomplish what you’re after through some other work we’ve been doing, and we’re ready to show that to you and the management team any time.”
What followed became a project that moved our space station training software from $2 million sets of equipment that filled a room, to a single rack of servers costing $50,000 and contributed to total fixed cost reductions of more than 50 percent.
Lesson learned: Share those great ideas with the full management team before giving direction. Rely on the same transparency to spark discussions that can lead to better ideas and innovations that deliver.
This kind of transparency can become a habit and part of your culture. It isn’t just for the bad news, but also for routine requests for better ideas, assurance that we’re not missing something, sharing resources to the areas that can make the next big gain… it makes us stronger and more successful as an enterprise.
Yes, the truth will set you free, and transparency is the way to find it and set the entire team free.