Why projects fail and how to make them succeed with more transparency

© Matthias Marschall

Imagine you’re driving your car through uncharted territory to a destination only vaguely described by “That Guy” who told you to go there. “That Guy” was kind enough to give you an absolutely non-negotiable deadline too. With that in mind, you race to the first waypoint – you should already be able to see it by now. But you find yourself in a heavy mist, with your windshield fogged up and broken wipers. In this situation, should you really speed up and to try and reach your destination on time?

The Perils of Missing Transparency

You might already see the connection: How many of your software development projects sound like that? You don’t know the technologies involved, you only have a rough idea about the required features and there’s an absolutely non-negotiable deadline looming. You know you need to move faster but you have no idea where you are and what else might be lurking out there:

  • Are you moving in the right direction?
  • How far have you come?
  • Are there any problems ahead?
  • Is there anything you need to fix before moving on?

We all know what happens when you’re missing transparency: you speed up, but the finished product doesn’t make anybody happy. Not the users, because you rushed to build what you initially thought to be the best thing ever instead of what they really needed. And not the developers, because, without the right information and time to correctly implement, the code is a mess.

The only way to build what your users need and give your developers the required information that makes your product successful is to create transparency.

How Transparency Helps You Build Successful Products

Creating transparency helps because you constantly need to make decisions while building a product: “What are the most important features?”, “How flexible do we need to build our architecture?”, or “Can we afford to add this cool new idea?”. Only if you can see the big picture, can you make the right decisions. Here are some proven ways to help you see what’s going on:

  • Create a visual workplace by setting up public dashboards showing the work in progress and the most important usage data of your application
  • Do regular product demos or, even better, do early releases of your product to get your users involved
  • Do daily status meetings where everyone can raise upcoming issues so that you can address them before they create big problems

By making things visible you create the transparency required to go faster without the risk of crashing your product.

Why People Fight Transparency

Even if you’re ready to create more transparency around product development, you might face a lot of resistance. If you’re working in a culture of fear, this resistance lurks just around the corner. If making mistakes is considered a sign of weakness or people are more busy playing political power games than working together, transparency will intimidate them. Proving people wrong might make them insecure. Even worse, your team may stop speaking up in status meetings if they feel the “messenger is the first to be lined up against the wall”.

Even if blaming isn’t a problem in your environment, it’s still hard for people to face brutal facts. A lot of people prefer to ignore them for as long as possible, and then, after everything blows-up in their faces, start blaming others for the failure.

Instead of blaming others, you, as a servant leader to your team, can create the trust to talk openly. If your team feels free to speak, they get used to facing brutal facts and can address problems before they become disasters. Despite all the resistance, slowly but steadily, other people will start to see the benefits of creating transparency, and your job will get easier with every successful release.

Driving your car through the mist with a fogged up windshield and broken wipers is a bad idea. Get your wipers fixed and turn your lights on – carefully inspect your environment to make sure you’re on track. Only then will you be able to safely reach your destination and enjoy the success of your trip.

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