Scrum, the most popular Agile framework, is based on three very simple ideas: empiricism, self-organization / empowered teams, and a focus on improvement. These ideas enable a team, team of teams, or an organization to respond to their environment and deliver great products. Those three ideas are ultimately dependent on transparency. Transparency is easy to say and understand, but often really hard to implement. Why is transparency so important, but also so difficult to implement?

Transparency describes the underlying need for Agile teams to ‘be in the know.’ This is born out of the fundamental characteristic of complex problems. Complexity, by its very nature is unknown, to solve a complex problem requires an individual, team or organization to do something and then inspect the results. Or as the Cynefin framework describes, “The relationship between cause and effect an only be perceived in hindsight.” That means that problems need to be broken down into small chunks with measurable outcomes and then the results are measured.

Sounds simple, but most organizations are ‘anti-transparent’ in nature. After all, the saying “keep you head down to avoid trouble” describes how many people operate in a complex organization hoping that by working hard and staying out of trouble they will keep their job, get their bonus, and ultimately get promoted. After all, “whistle blowers” had to be protected by law, which implies it is not the most natural thing to do. It’s hard to inspect and adapt when by sharing the truth you will be labeled a trouble maker, a problem creator or at the very best a moaner. However, agility requires transparency and it applies to:

  1. The work being done – It is important that the team frequently inspects the work being undertaken. In Scrum, the Daily Scrum provides a formal structure where the team inspects the Sprint and determines if they should change or adapt anything to improve the outcomes.
  2. The work that has been done – Agile teams deliver incrementally or continuously. That means that the work is not just interesting when being developed, but also when it is being used. Instrumentation of the work is therefore a fundamental part of any work item and the team needs time to inspect work being used.
  3. The way the work is being done – Not only does the end product need to be transparent, but also the way the work is being done. Agile teams are always looking to improve their craft and deliver better products with less effort. This is so important, and therefore, the recent update to the Scrum Guide added the idea that every Sprint should include at least one team improvement.
  4. The potential next chunk of work – No highly effective team concentrates solely on the immediate work. In fact, they are always looking to what is next. Refinement is an optional event in Scrum, but crucial for more complex, and large product developments with time spent every Sprint looking at the Product Backlog with a view to getting it ready to be worked on.
  5. The progress against the vision – This seems obvious, but how often have you been so focused on the immediate task at hand that you forget the context that work is in? This is even more true for larger and more complex problems where the ultimate vision is broad and long term. By making the vision transparent and accessible to the team, agile teams will always work with that goal in mind.

It is easy to talk in abstract ways about the need for transparency, but the reality is that by applying some very simple ideas you can fundamentally change the way in which your team, team of teams, or organization works. Ask these four simple questions of the work, the outcomes, the vision, or anything that you are engaged with:

  1. Can we make this more visible? Transparency requires everyone to see it. If it is electronic, that means putting it in a place that everyone can see or linking it to the card or work item. Avoid the ‘ask John’ approach to finding things and ensure that when that happens that you put it in a place that everyone can find.
  2. How do we measure the outcome of this work? Everything should have an impact which is measurable. Each work item within your backlog should have a measurable outcome and it is important that the team measures it. It is worth investing in dashboards and information radiators to take things out of PowerPoint and ensure that everyone can see the data.
  3. How do we keep this information up to date? Transparency is only valuable if it is kept up to date, and this is not the responsibility of one person. For many traditional projects a project manager runs around gathering status information and then presents it back to the team and other stakeholders. Agile teams are ‘self-managed’ which does not just mean they do not have a manager, but instead that everyone manages the team. Keeping things up-to-date, ensuring that they are transparent and reported is the responsibility of everyone.
  4. Can this be easier? If transparency becomes second nature and natural for the team then it will be effective. But magic does not just happen. Instead the team need to work on making things easy, putting in automation and using tools that make transparency a natural part of working.

Transparency is a fundamental part of agility but is not a natural way of working. Being open with your team even when the thing you are sharing is not good news is difficult. It requires a culture that supports transparency. To help encourage this cultural change, Scrum provides five values. These values are commitment, focus, openness, respect and courage. In particular, openness, courage and respect clearly talk to transparency. By encouraging people to have the courage to speak out and make issues, problems, and successes transparent by providing a respectful and open environment teams will change their behavioral norms to be more transparent.

Being transparent is a complex problem and like any complex problem it is important to break it down and incrementally deliver value while inspecting and adapting. That means you need to treat transparency like everything else and measure its success and change when you learn that things are not working. In practical terms, that means that teams will experiment with different ways of presenting information and then change them when they learn new ‘stuff.’ For example, the board and the lists might change frequently, as will the information on a card as the team tries different things. It is important to be agile in your transparency approach.