Transparent Software Development Teams

Transparency promotes an environment of trust and accountability that teams thrive in. It aligns interests and avoids problems by airing issues before they become significant. Without transparency, team culture breaks down. In the absence of information people often jump to negative conclusions. Mistrust spreads and small issues balloon into big problems.

This is all pretty obvious, so why is it still such a problem? Well, the challenge is that transparency is difficult to promote and maintain. There are a variety of incentives and dynamics within teams that make this the case.

It’s human nature to want to be less transparent. Being transparent is hard.

Transparency demands that people open themselves up to external feedback. By being transparent they are openly sharing what they are doing and why they’re doing it. The result is that other people may criticise what they see. Hiding work and reasons for taking certain decision lets people, temporarily, avoid confrontation. It’s human nature to want to be less transparent. Being transparent is hard.

Differences in domain expertise and ways of working mean silos quickly form. These silos are big barriers to the spread of information in a team.

Maintaining transparency is particularly challenging on software development teams. These teams usually contain people with a variety of different roles and skill. Engineers, product managers and designers etc, often use different process and sets of tools. These differences in the way of working and in domain expertise mean silos quickly form. These silos are big barriers to the spread of information within a team.

A common scenario is product definition happening in isolation from the rest of a team. Decisions are made behind closed doors and then passed on without clear rationale. Another example is the lack of visibility into the software development phase of projects. Developers coding in isolation and sharing work only when it’s done. At which point any design issues are already baked-in and refactoring is expensive. A lack of transparency around work and accountability leads to mistrust.

These examples are all too familiar to anyone who has worked in a product development team. There are, however, some simple actions you can take to promote openness.

1. Show and tell

Encourage people to share their work early and often. Have people present their own work to team members in weekly team meetings. Presenting and sharing product specifications, designs, and coded features before they’re done. Encourage people presenting to provide rationale for their decisions and prompt others for feedback.

2. Work in shared open spaces.

Make it impossible for people to work for weeks in isolation and only show their final results. Create shared open repositories, where team members can access each others’ work, while it’s in progress. Make everyone’s work as visible as possible. It should be dead easy to find the latest versions of any design or specification. Particularly while it is still being worked on. Likewise, invest in continuous deployment or builds, so that the latest version of any code is always available.

Make it impossible for people to work for weeks in isolation and only show their final results.

3. Inclusive design and development.

Encourage an inclusive design and development process. One where developers are included in design and product decisions and visa versa. It’s important that this happens as early on as possible in the process. Before decisions are locked-in and feedback is difficult to incorporate. Likewise, encourage collaborative problem solving during development. That is, people collaborating closely from inception to deployment of a product. Not handing over work in waterfall-like steps and then forgetting about it.

4. Open feedback.

Promote an environment where people feel comfortable requesting, sharing and accepting feedback. This means ensuring that feedback is always provided in a constructive manner. That people are open to suggestions and new ideas, as well as respectful to those providing them. People who feel comfortable and respected are far more likely to act in a transparent manner. Senior team members need to lead by example and there should be zero tolerance for disrespectful behavior.

Senior team members need to lead by example and there should be zero tolerance for disrespectful behavior.

5. Transparent Management.

Ensuring that managers are transparent about the decisions they take is critical. From strategic decisions through to goals, promotions, hiring and firing. Being open and over-communicating on any decisions that impact a team. Transparent managers set the tone for an open and trusting team. Regular all-team Q&As are one way to promote openness around management decisions.

Product development teams that promote transparency are far more likely to succeed. Creating a culture of transparency is challenging, particularly for multi-skilled teams. The key to doing so, is to take a proactive approach to creating an open environment and leading by example.

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