Transparency is more than handing out the spreadsheet – revisiting the Six Secrets

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: April 20th 2012

TransparencyOn a few of my posts I have reflected on good works in the past that seem to fly by. When the “next good book” on leadership or process comes out, we often simply turn our minds to new thoughts and trends in educational leadership or leadership in general. I tend to keep things around and reflect back on things that people wrote that really had an impact on me. Some works come to mind like Ernest Boyer’s In Search of Community or Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology. Another book that is really a benchmark for me is Michael Fullan’s Six Secrets of Change. It is a benchmark because what he said about transparency really struck a chord. Transparency (Secret #5) is more than showing the numbers. It is more than handing out a spreadsheet or formula and saying there it is. Transparency is giving people the evidence and material that they need, and helping them see the meaning behind the numbers or words. Transparency isn’t about sharing the data. It’s about sharing the meaning and nuances behind the data. I want to share an example of what I believe transparency looks like and the benefits that can be gained.

Last year we used a new method to deal with staffing allotments at secondary. One of the things we did was take the staffing we held back to deal with last minute adjustments needed in September and we formed a very small working committee to hand out that staffing. One of our starting points was to hand out all the initial staffing allocations to all schools to everyone on the committee. This was a bit of a watershed moment as I’m not sure that everyone had seen everyone else’s staffing in the past. They may have but to hand out the excel spreadsheets seemed a bit of a new twist. In doing so we also asked any school asking for staffing to share their entire timetable structure so we could weigh requests. This small committee had a defined task – look at requests for staffing, look at timetables and needs, and hand out staffing – about half a million dollars worth overall. I share the above only for context but I want to talk about the benefits of doing this small activity – dealing with staffing allocations in a transparent way.

First, we worked as equals. Everyone brought their knowledge and experience to the table and everyone had value and insights to add to the issue at hand. Every decision we made really was by consensus.

Second, the schools sent their most knowledgeable timetable people to the table. In some cases, this meant vice-principals since they did most of the timetabling or were in the details enough to make a solid contribution. This gave me an opportunity to work closely with VP’s and get to know them more in detail and see their strengths and styles. It also meant that our Human Resources team who did secondary staffing was at the table with the schools so the conversations that normally were behind closed doors or 1:1 were now way more in the open as everyone sat and listened to HR’s needs and to school needs as well.

Third, we got to look at the whole district. HR brought all the data about school class size and composition and we were able to weigh requests from schools against their actual timetables and allotted staffing of the day.

In the end, we had a small group with a defined task. We had the information we needed and we had the expertise in the room to get the job done. The group met only a few times and, as promised, we gave out our half million dollars in staffing. However, really the whole goal of the exercise was to make staffing in September a little more transparent.

What does this type of transparency and process accomplish? Secret #3 is about the importance of capacity building. Working together with colleagues on a task that has impact really shows you what people offer, their expertise and allows you to get to know them. They, in turn, get to see the district picture and more context about the demands of balancing competing interests. Everyone gains and the system capacity grows.

Secret #1 is about valuing your colleagues and employees as much as your “clients.” Trusting people with a major decision like staffing is demonstrating such value. As you can imagine with staffing on the line, not only do these committee members want to do good work, but they also will be judged by their peers in the field to ensure that the work is fair and transparent. When you work by consensus on a clearly defined task, you show people that you value their contributions, expertise, and the meaning they bring to the table.

But the real intent of this post is about transparency. I have learned over the years that transparency is often thought of as sharing the “stuff” (whatever the stuff is) and I don’t actually believe that is transparency. I’ve seen (and probably handed out) enough 6 point font spreadsheets to know that really if you don’t take the time to explain to people what you’re giving them, it really isn’t transparency.

In the examples I’ve shared, I’ve used formula-based information and numbers. But transparency is also about the nuances behind any information you share. When you explain concepts that have taken years to evolve and are adjusted to local context, they require a little time and detail. Most often, the person sharing the information knows the time-tested questions that went into shaping things the way they are. It would be the most unusual situation where a complex topic simply is “solved” on the spot once and forever more it is unchanged. Things evolve, things take time. Complex topics require the history and context that goes with the spreadsheet or handout.

In the end, transparency is about who you are as a leader. It requires work to communicate well and to help people understand the meaning behind the words and, in some cases, numbers. Transparency is about openness of intent, it’s about openness of mind to new possibilities. In short, being transparent in your leadership practices will not only make you a better leader, it will make everyone around you better as well.

So the next time you’re dealing with a difficult topic or something that took years to evolve. If it took you two years to build the spreadsheet or guidelines, it’s probably worth half an hour to explain. It will be time well spent.