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Why Transparency Is Overrated

“Disclosing data is not a brave or altruistic act all by itself.”

Why Transparency Is Overrated
[Photo: Flickr user fdecomite]

In the startup world, few topics garnered as much buzz lately as transparency–the act of sharing previously private company information with the inquisitive public.

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You can now find dozens if not hundreds of startups sharing everything they’re learning while building their businesses from scratch. It’s an exciting development. After all, does anyone want more secrecy from the brands and companies they support?

Where transparency might go in the future remains an open question, though. To be sure, there’s still plenty to build even further on some of the latest breakthroughs, like open dashboards and fully transparent salaries.

But the potential for those developments come with one caveat: startups that promote and engage in transparency also have to serve as the neighborhood watch–like the public park available to all, everyone’s responsible for keeping it tidy.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen some littering lately.

Turning Taboos Into Traffic

Transparency has always been an authentic (and effective) form of marketing when done well. But when transparency becomes a tool startups use in order to grow–and in many quarters, it already has–the race is then on to turn the taboo into traffic.

Dumping information into the world with little context or purpose trivializes transparency. Instead of giving users and competitors a closer look at how you run your business, it becomes little more than a matter of trading privacy for attention. Call it “infotainment”–the digital startup equivalent of Jerry Springer, and even less fun to tune into.

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We shouldn’t insulate positive developments–and transparency surely is one–from healthy critique and criticism. Movement in any direction isn’t progress, after all. It’s not only helpful but necessary to point out missteps when we see them.

Here are a few ways the transparency movement has already gone a little awry:

Renewed tolerance for old tricks. Because they promise “real metrics” and “inside looks,” too many shallow case studies, anecdotes, and quick-win growth hacks are being treated with undue reverence. Whatever valid insights they contain, they’re mostly PR. We can do better.

“All eyes on me, please.” There’s an odd cult of appreciation for transparent behavior at the moment, where those involved expect to be lauded for making public what was once private. In truth, disclosing data is not a brave or altruistic act all by itself. You have to provide value to those to whom you’re offering new information. Selfless servant leadership beats selfish thought leadership any day of the week.

A transparency arms-race afoot. When public revenue dashboards become passé, what’s next? One-upping usually leads to ugly outcomes, and I worry that those who are only (or primarily) embracing transparency in order to burnish their brand will be tripping over themselves to score the next big thing.

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An absence of failure. One disturbing trend I’ve noticed is that “tell-all” narrative only seems to apply when times are good. With few exceptions–like Rand Fishkin’s candid piece detailing the “series of wholly avoidable missteps” that led him to step down as CEO of Moz–transparency tends to focus on the wins. When failure does occur, it’s either after the company has completely shut down (oops!), or it’s gift-wrapped with a misleading upside. But sometimes failure is just failure. It sucks. Shouldn’t we talk about that?

For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Sick of the “lessons learned” hype-fest, some have already begun to mock the fetish for pseudo-transparency, as the headline of this satirical post makes bitingly clear:

How Product Hunt Helped Me Grow A List Of 12,989,483,288+ Valuable Subscribers And Generate 220k+ In Sales In Less Than 20 Minutes Without Having To Write A Single Line Of Code And Also Taught Me These 5+ Startup Lessons From My Mistakes About Being A Product Manager in 2016

Humor aside, if accurate income reports are just about the only thing we can expect from “transparent” startups, and the rest is noise and blather, respect for transparent behavior at large will bite the dust.

I hope that doesn’t happen.

Ensuring Transparency Sticks Around

You’ve heard plenty of times that in this attention economy your eyeballs are highly sought after. If you’ve made it this far and agree that “miles wide and inches deep” is not your favored form of transparency, it’s up to you to help change the conversation. Indeed, there’s already some reason for encouragement:

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  • Companies like Pinterest and Slack have openly shared their plans for creating more diverse, inclusive companies. Making important initiatives like those public creates real accountability.
  • Social movements like #TalkPay have seen tremendous traction, breaking down the “Last Taboo”–your salary–to encourage fairer compensation.
  • In some cases, customers are being better taken care of during times of crisis. Buffer’s transparent blogging during a 2013 security incident remains the gold standard. Each and every detail was shared through every step of the resolution.

Accountability, customer trust, fairness: these are authentic reasons to be excited about transparency, and they’re the things any change undertaken in its name must serve in order to be meaningful.

It’s only recently that businesses have shown they want to be generous with the information they disclose, and we have the transparency movement to thank for that. But that new desire hasn’t always seemed sincere. So let’s not pat ourselves on the back for sharing just anything at all. Let’s be more discriminating–and keep the airwaves filled with substance and clear of all the rest.

Gregory Ciotti is a content marketing strategist at Help Scout, the invisible email support software for web businesses who want to do away with impersonal ticket numbers and clunky customer portals. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryCiotti.

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