Clear as Mud – Attaining Real Transparency in Agile

Added to Mindset

How transparent are you?  How transparent is your team, your organization?  We all know that transparency is an essential aspect of Agile development, but do you really understand just how critical it is?

Transparency is often a key tenant of corporate mission statements.  The need for greater transparency in government and business has led to numerous legal mandates in the past few decades.  Transparency is one of the three “pillars” of Scrum, according to Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland.

A lack of transparency can be demonstrated simply by being ambiguous, being overly discreet, or working in isolation, or it can be as caustic as intentional secrecy, misrepresentation, or a cover-up.

Subtle transparency issues I regularly witness include:

  • Not sharing impending issues soon enough
  • Working on a problem by yourself without telling anyone
  • Keeping vital info to yourself (self-preservation)

One of the most destructive transparency challenges is the practice of “green-shifting” – misrepresenting a red or yellow condition so it is seen as a green condition.  For example, a team member yells “the building is on fire”.  Their Team Lead tells the Manager “there’s smoke coming from the windows”, who in turn tells the Director that “it seems really hazy out today”, who tells the VP that “today’s weather is having a slight impact on productivity”.  If the building is on fire, it makes more sense to tell the real story so we can put out the fire.  If an aspect of a project is in trouble, tell it like it is so the team or others can mitigate the issue before the project burns to the ground.

Transparency is both a mindset and a behavior.  When we have a transparent mindset, our instinct is that of including others, and not egotism, and our behaviors reflect that mindset by readily sharing information, whether good or bad.

A high level of transparency:

  • Builds trust and strengthens relationships
  • Helps us make better decisions and promotes better feedback
  • Helps ensure we are more aligned with each other and fosters a culture of higher engagement – employees who trust that their leaders are open and honest will engage at a higher level, feel more ownership of company goals, and work harder
  • Reduces risk and surprises
  • Increases accountability

Becoming more transparent is not always easy.  Conversations can be more difficult when we face issues honestly instead of sugar-coating or trying to be nice.  Transparency can make us feel vulnerable because we’re sometimes sharing shortcomings or problems we helped create.  The more we share, the higher the probability we will be scrutinized or receive negative feedback.  However, feedback never killed anyone.

Here are a handful of ways to become more transparent:

  • If you are in a leadership role, demonstrate transparency yourself – make it clear that transparency applies to everyone.
  • Have the difficult conversations needed to move past issues. Ignoring issues doesn’t make them go away.
  • Don’t “wing it”; if you don’t know the answer to something, don’t make up an answer just to keep your ego intact. Instead, say you don’t know, then help find the answer.
  • Share information freely – don’t keep vital information to yourself.
  • Tell it like it is (whether good or bad). Don’t sugar-coat it; don’t “green-shift”.
  • Involve others in decision-making where it makes sense and it doesn’t slow down the process.
  • Communicate quickly when things change.

Much of this is common sense but knowing it and doing something about it are not the same thing.  Successful Agile development requires transparency.  Take a step toward higher transparency today.  It might be uncomfortable, but growth doesn’t often happen inside our comfort zone.

About the Author


Agile coach with Mindtree, passionate about the values and principles that make agility successful and sustainable. Hooked on all things Agile – whether at work or home. @AgileDK


This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.