Real Transparent Communication: Product Development in Public

Transparency at work. Transparent communication. It seems that the word transparency has become so ubiquitous at this point. You’ll see it promised in job descriptions and in company culture brag posts.

I chatted with Thomas Knoll when I was considering joining the team at Revelry, and he also brought up transparency. He explained Revelry’s process, the culture, the communication values, and yep, the transparency. I nodded along. As a software engineer, I thought, how often would I really be interfacing directly with clients?

(Clearly, I hadn’t read this post on how we use Slack with clients before joining the team.)

This is the story of how working directly with the product owner has changed my views on communication.

It’s day 1 at Revelry, and I’m stuck.

When I joined the team, there were already projects waiting for me. Within a few hours, I had been added to a couple of project Slack channels and I was off and running. Then, I got stuck.

Getting stuck isn’t a bad thing. Actually, getting stuck on my first day on my first project may have been the most valuable thing to have happened. It was in that moment that I learned all I needed to know about transparent communication at Revelry.

As soon as I got stuck, I jumped into Slack and opened a direct message to a teammate. “Hey, I ran into an issue and it is going to affect the timeline of this project. What should I do?” The response I got looked something like, “For starters, you should ask this question in the project Slack channel and let’s chat about it!”

As a developer, this goes against my natural instinct. Aren’t I supposed to reach out to a project manager, have a meeting, then have the project manager craft a palatable note to the client?

No, no I’m not.

Talking transparently

For a lot of people, myself included, it can be difficult to say you don’t know something.

And if you’re stuck on a project, that’s basically what you’re saying. “I don’t know how to fix this issue.” So when it came time to post a note in Slack that a project was stuck, I got really nervous. This was uncharted territory for me. I wrote and rewrote the message half a dozen times before finally hitting submit. I held my breath waiting for a response.

Of course, I was worrying for nothing. There was no ridicule. There was no finger pointing. Instead, a teammate jumped in with a suggestion.

We talked through some options and we came up with a proposed solution. A minute later, the client chimed in with a thumbs up and I was back on track. The time I spent concerned about sending that first message was probably longer than it took us to come up with a solution and get buy-in from the team and client.

There may be something to this process.

What happens when you chat in the open

Old habits die hard. I still find myself wanting to have back-channel conversations about issues that come up, before talking about them in front of a client or even in a Slack channel with our entire team. But, with each conversation I have, I’m learning more and more the value of chatting in the open.

Here are just a few of the benefits I’ve found so far.

Transparency

There’s that word again.

I think about how I’ve built projects for clients in the past. They would tell me what they want, I would go off for weeks at a time to build what they asked for. We may have had a weekly check-in call or email, but probably not much more than that. And really, those check-in calls were all about reassurance and not about truth.

I mean, who wants to rock the boat with the client, right?

If this is your normal process with a client, you know that you try to fix challenges as they come up until you can’t avoid sharing with the client anymore. And then that potentially difficult conversation can’t be avoided.

There’s a better way.

With the client being “in the room” during the entire development process, they are involved in the conversation. They see the development happening as it goes along. The good and the the bad. They see the conversations you have with team members and how you come to a solution. That’s transparent communication.

This unfiltered access to the team and the process eliminates all surprises. You’re no longer having easy or tough conversations. You’re just having conversations.

Building Trust

There’s nothing more valuable than building trust between you, your teammates, and your clients. Trust goes a long way when things are going well, and even further when they’re not.

When you first start working with a client, they’re taking a leap of faith to work with you. No matter what they know of you and your company, the work you’ve done previously, whatever, they still have to make the decision to send that first check. It is only then that you can start to build trust. Everything up to that point is just marketing.

I’m finding the open conversations to be like making small deposits in the Bank of Trust. Not just with the client, but with my teammates, too. Whether it’s because I just joined the company or I have just joined a project already in progress, there’s always going to be an opportunity to work with someone for the first time.

How we handle tasks and communicate results with clients can help us gain each other’s trust. It would be pretty useless to have a client put their trust in me if my teammates did not.

Avoid Double Work & Bad Decisions

As I mentioned, some projects have months or even years of history that our teammates simply won’t know about. Transparent conversations give us the ability to search through some Slack chat history and review Git commit messages.

But, having direct access to ask a client a question before diving into a ticket allows for us to get right to work. There is no need to go through a project manager, and there’s no need to schedule a meeting with all appropriate parties and layers of red tape.

Product development in public means that the engineers on the team can get quick responses and avoid duplicating work. This way, we avoid situations where work gets unnecessarily paused or where work proceeds ahead based on an incorrect assumption.

Retraining The Brain for Transparent Communication

I love communicating in this way. And I wish I could say it comes naturally, but I’ve built up over 20 years of muscle memory that doesn’t change in a day. I still catch myself wanting to send a direct message to a teammate, or getting ready to involve a project manager when one isn’t necessary.

This will take some time. But, with each conversation that leads to a quick solution, the process is getting easier to adopt.

Does your company promote open conversation? Drop a note in the comments below and tell me what benefits have you seen, or issues you’ve run into.

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