More Than Dashboards: Transparency & Empowering Teams with Data

by Sarah El-Atm, Rowan Barnes & Daniel Banik, August

Being transparent with data is a double-edged sword. It’s great to see wins and celebrate success when things go well. But poor results can lead to demotivated team members, finger-pointing, and even humiliation.

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Nobody wants to see their name at the bottom of an agency-wide leaderboard, or find out that the project they’re most proud of was horribly unprofitable. When we make performance data transparent, do we really understand the impact that data could have on our teams? Or are we just ‘puking’ data because it’s fashionable?

Few would doubt that transparency is important to running a successful agency. When we have transparency, the collective value of an agency is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Transparency helps to ensure team members are aligned and working towards the same goals. It ensures everyone has access to the same information, meaning decisions can be made without having to revert to ‘managers’. With advances in technology, data now provides team members, in near real time, where they can improve (no need to wait for that bi-annual performance review). Critically, access to information that might otherwise be hidden (such as salaries), leads to a feeling of trust and empowerment in teams, boosting productivity. Buffer is one example when it comes to salary transparency.

For many organizations, the first step towards transparency is to simply ‘open the door’ to the data. We email PDF reports to our teams, provide dashboards on TV screens around the office, and offer access to shared Google spreadsheets for anyone to see. We’re being transparent! What could go wrong?

Intentions are almost always good. But transparency can be fraught with danger. For example:

What happens when the results look bad?

What happens when your radically transparent data publicly highlights an employee who is performing worse than everyone else? That person starts to feel demotivated. They start blaming others. They start to doubt the data itself, claiming ‘there must be something wrong with the system’. They feel humiliated and performance drops further. Worst, the rest of the team start to feel scared. “What if I’m at the bottom of the list next week?”, “Is this another bad month for the company? Is my job on the line?”

What to do about it:

  • Anonymize reports that don’t require individual data. While some would argue that this isn’t truly transparent, the purpose of some reports is to show how the team is performing overall, rather than showing individual performance. If that’s the report’s objective, anonymize it. Truly understanding why you’re providing certain data to the team is critical here.
  • Give underperformers a private ‘heads up’. If you absolutely must send a report that could demoralize someone, give that person a sneak peek at the data before sending to the wider team. Allow that person time to think about the result, and give them the opportunity to discuss it if required. This is another way of being transparent and it is also the compassionate thing to do. The person impacted might even help act as an advocate for the data because they’ve been able to respond and show action rather than be surprised and react poorly.

What happens when we have too much data?

If you want to become truly transparent, you must share everything. Salaries, sales performance, financial operating metrics, satisfaction data, project profitability… the works. But when we have so much data at our fingertips, it becomes hard to know what to focus on. Teams achieve wins in some areas, but perform poorly in others. When this happens, it’s hard to know whether you’re winning or just spinning your wheels.

Further, while transparency can often lead to faster decision-making, in some situations it can do the opposite; and slow things down. When everyone has a desire to throw in their two-cents, we can get stuck in debates that never go anywhere.

What to do about it:

  • Agree on your core metrics. Your agency should have a limited number of core metrics that act as a ‘north star’. Agree on them, and stick to them.
  • Focus on just a few ‘additional’ metrics per fortnight/month/quarter. For everything outside your core metrics, decide as a team what the focus should be for a pre-determined period. For example, “next month, let’s focus on improving our response time to sales enquiries”. Shout about that data, and turn the volume down on the rest.
  • Don’t confuse ‘transparency’ with ‘authority’. While you should allow teams to share their opinion on the data and time to come up with a plan of action, there’s a chance they might hit a roadblock. You still need someone to make decisions, so that everyone can move on.

Ultimately, transparency in agencies isn’t just about being open with data. While that’s an essential ingredient, it’s also about ensuring teams understand the reason for the data and its impact. It’s about demonstrating to teams that there’s nothing to hide but, more importantly, it’s about setting everyone up for success. Ultimately, that’s what we’re striving for, really. Transparency is just a means to that end.

Sarah El-Atm, August

Sarah El-Atm, August

Rowan Barnes, August

Rowan Barnes, August

Daniel Banik, August

Daniel Banik, August

About the Author: Sarah works across operations, HR, and engagement at August. Working with the team to improve business strategies and processes as well as contributing to their expansion activities across the UK and Canada, Sarah enjoys being involved in work that continues to lift their standards as an agency. When she’s not at August, you’ll find her attending lectures about developments in the law and indulging in a trail run or two.

About the Author: Rowan is an experienced digital marketer, who loves getting stuck into Google Analytics to look for opportunities, and thrives on finding ways to do things better. An avid fan of Formula 1, Rowan would love the chance to drive a lap in a Mercedes F1 car.

About the Author: With a background in strategy, user-centred interaction, service and experience design, marketing and brand management, Daniel is a driving force behind August. A forward-thinking and quietly ambitious individual, Daniel is constantly asking the question: “How can we do it better?” He is a strategic thinker and doer who leads the August team to think big and deliver work that exceeds clients’ expectations.