transparency tyranny, transparency triumph


“In the kingdom of glass everything is transparent, and there is no place to hide a dark heart.”

Vera Nazarian


“Miracles and catastrophies are two sides of the same coin.”

Hannah Arendt


Interestingly, in a data AI driven world it will come down to human conversations. Words & dialogue. Commitments have structure: request, negotiation, agreement, explanations. Clarity, trust, transparency.  people will still depend on speech acts for effective communication.

Purposewashing, greenwashing, incentivizing responsibility, ESG, all of these issues revolve around the conflict business faces in doing right things, incentives, creating value in the marketplace and proof (measurement). I thought about this again while reading Alison Taylor’s piece Incentivising ESG.

The title of my piece actually comes from two trendwatching reports from 2007 called Transparency Tyranny and Transparency Triumph where they highlighted the fact that business is going to be in the business of transparency whether they liked it or not. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the original source for transparency as a business issue, to the scale it is today, is most likely The Cluetrain Manifesto. Strewn throughout the manifesto is the idea that in an interconnected world nothing can be hidden and everything can be said. Most likely the best chapter for that is on the hyperlinked corporation. Regardless. Transparency is just simply a characteristic of business. It is no longer a choice to make or not make; it just simply is. Having said that then the business must choose how they’re going to go about handling this characteristic. I do not believe that today’s business is inherently political, however, I have said in today’s business environment a business cannot not be involved in social issues. What that means is in a political world – context – a business decision, de facto, will become construed as a political thing (but a business is not being political). Anyway. I have always believed in embracing Peter Drucker’s idea of ‘business in and of society,’ but I believe it even more so in today’s business world. The other thing I believe I draw from John Grant’s fabulous book, The Greener Manifesto, where he makes the point that the choice that many businesses have to make is just simply doing better (or do less harm). That certainly comes with some challenges in the social arena, but it is a business choice.

Which leads me to state we are now living in a transparent world (whether you like it or not).

Global transparency now means the noncompetitive, the incompetent and the imperfect have few places left to hide. The problem is even the competitive, competent and quasi-perfect have no place to hide either. Trendwatching suggested Transparency Tyranny now rules:

“Old economy fog is clearing: no longer can incompetence, below-par performance, ignored global standards, anti-social & anti-eco behavior, or opaque pricing be obscured. In its place has come a transparent, fully informed marketplace, where producers have no excuse left to underperform. TRANSPARENCY TYRANNY for some, TRANSPARENCY TRIUMPH for others. “

What transparency really means is you have to perform at your best all the time. In the past you could get away with not performing at your best, let alone the industry standard’s best. Today, there is no excuse and, in fact, how you perform (do what you do) has actually become part of the public’s assessment of your value (not just the benefit your business offers). There are a number of issues wrapped up in this, but let’s just say ‘performing at your peak performance’ is a confluence of factors, not just one thing, and at any given point, as Barak Obama said once, “someone at some point will be doing something boneheaded.” Anyone interested in exploring peak performance should research Tony Fish’s discussions on navigating the tyranny of peak paradox.

Which leads me to the pragmatics of tyranny.

  • You will never be environmental enough.
  • You will never be diverse enough.
  • You will never be purposeful enough.
  • You will never be ethical enough.
  • You will never be socially responsible enough.
  • You will never be patriotic enough.
  • You will never be organic enough.
  • You will never be healthy enough.

That is the reality. You will never be ‘enough’ to someone. No measurement, no proof, no amount of PR releases will be enough. Accept it or run yourself into the ground chasing ‘enough.’ Business is imperfect and a quivering mass of vulnerabilities. Accept it. Embrace it in fact. Accept what you are, accept what you are not, accept what you have chosen to do, and accept what you have chosen to not do. There are realities in business and while there will always be people who are seeking a pristine business; you will never be it.

–          A business that produces paper cuts down trees.

–          A business that produces oil drills for oil.

–          A coffee company who has millions of pounds to distribute will inevitably use a dubious source.

–          A global manufacturing company will inevitably use some resource that is not particularly good.

That is reality. Yet those things do not make you a bad business. What makes you a bad business is if you do not responsibly attempt to limit the bad things. In a transparency tyranny world, triumph may actually be found in admitting your imperfections and simply telling everybody that you’re just trying to do your best and trying to be better and attempting to do ‘less harm.’

Yes. Sometimes someone will be doing better than your best and someone will be trying to be better than you are. But this isn’t a competition for best or better, this is simply doing the best that you can. In fact, maybe you should triple down on the really good things you do. Don’t ignore the bad things, just accept that by tripling down on the good you will, well, do less of the bad as a % of your actions, i.e., do less harm as an outcome. And that is where transparency triumphs reside. I disagree with many people with the thought that if you are explaining you are losing. If you are in the business of progress, intentions to do better today than you did yesterday, and running your business profitably but purposefully trying to do what benefits people, you explain that. And if that type of explanation is losing then I wish all of business was in the losing business.

Which leads me to 24/7 world encourages everyone to believe everyone is losing.

Thousands of blogs, newsletters and millions of people are dedicated to tracking down and promoting the best of the best, and, uhm, the worst of the worst. There are no barriers, there are no filters, and there is no nuance. In fact, it is actually a bit worse. What I mean by that is a term I scribbled down once: “incitement capitalism.” Today’s world encourages extreme emotional responses – anger, passion, love, disdain – and all of that is encouraged by an online system built to heighten ‘incitement.’ So while I mentioned ‘performing at your peak performance’ earlier, it really does not matter. Someone, somewhere, is going to find a crack in your best or, even more likely, make up a crack in your best. And while price transparency tyranny is the most obvious thing, the reality is tyranny is reigning in what makes up that price – your sourcing, your sustainability, your hiring practices, your ‘purpose,’ your culture, your, well, everything. Business is in a glass house. You can try and wish away your glassness, but the glass house will remain. What should matter to you is the foundation upon which it is built.

Which leads me back to the beginning – ESG, Purpose, green, whatever.

Business has warped a number of good ideas into, well, business ideas and metrics. Its almost like none of these things have any value unless you can prove its value. That’s absurd for a couple of reasons. First is that no number will completely capture your entire performance let alone your entire output. It creates a false sense of success. Ponder that awhile before you move on. Second. Everyone loses in this situation – before the race has even begun. I am not anti-measurement and I encourage every business who elects to pursue some principled path to decide how it wants to see how well it is doing in its pursuit. But that is an internal discussion. Externally just let the chips fall as they may. Some will unfairly attack you and some will fairly commend you. All you can do is be what you want to be, don’t be what you don’t want to be, and take a stand for any and all of those things. Those are the principles on which you stand – for good and bad. I imagine I state all of this in the way I am because measurement for external proof is wasted energy. It’s the wrong objective, will take energy to share and even more energy to defend. Screw that. Invest your energy in doing the business of doing business – do better, do less harm, do the rights things. Choose wisely. But do. Ponder.

Written by Bruce