Criteria for an effective content-transparent system


In order to realize all of the benefits of a content-transparent system (more on that in last week’s post), there are three critical criteria.

  1. There are clear guidelines for what and how to publish into the system
  2. Participants act as good stewards of the system
  3. Active curation and spotlighting of information (at the company and individual level)

Establishing clear guidelines

The effectiveness of a content-transparent system depends heavily on how well-organized the information is. And with information being produced at such a steady clip across the organization, the most efficient way to keep things organized is to publish into the system with a reliable set of tools, tags, and guidelines that enable everyone at your company to uphold the overall taxonomy in the run of work. This way, people outside of the core working group will reliably be able to see or find the information.

At most organizations, information is open on an invitation-only basis across all states and the core working group determines what the norms and tools are for their workstream.  This means that employees are only made aware of work that they are proactively invited to see. It also means that people outside of the working group need to leverage an infinite combination of tools/norms in order to plug into the work of others.

In a content-transparent system work in all states is not only open to those who were intentionally brought into the workstream, but also to anyone at the company who wants to follow along with progress. And, by establishing company-wide guidelines for tools and norms, onlookers know exactly how to access any work stream.

When it comes to tools…Companies can, and should, be more opinionated about this than they think; If you’ve ever had to search for that one piece of information you need in your email, Slack, Coda, Paper, Notion, Airtable, and Google Drive before locating it, you know why. Aligning on a common set of tools will make the system easier to navigate for both writers and readers.

When it comes to norms…the goal is to establish guidelines for how to write into and read from the system using them. This is specifically important when it comes to setting up your communication channels. I wrote about my favorite company wide channels here. You should also consider establishing norms for how and where teams and crossfunctional working groups communicate so that others can follow along.

A few thoughts/tips:

  • Default to open email lists and Slack groups. Create private ones at your discretion, but they should be the overwhelming minority.
  • Make a habit of showing work-in-progress. Many of the trust-building benefits of the system come from this phase. Seeing ~unpolished work from colleagues promotes a true understanding of how the work gets done, and how your colleagues do it, which promotes trust.
  • Ensure leaders have eyes on the raw material and the curated version. There is a huge benefit for company leaders to independently discern the difference between the shape and quality of work that’s actually happening and the shape and quality of the work as it is reported up into them.
  • go/links can provide shortcuts to critical information. Their naming should be foremost straightforward/useful (go/operating-principles). They can also reflect the company’s values, quirks, or norms (go/pets).

Thinking in push and pull mechanisms

Push mechanisms are those that deliver information to employees where they are already working (a Slack DM is the most direct example, but you could also imagine an email list that everyone is expected to subscribe to, get notified on, and read as another).

Pull mechanisms: are those that are engaged by people in need of a piece of information or curious minds. They might go hunting on the company’s wiki or a team’s documentation.

Parsing the information is an org-specific muscle. The better the system is architected, and the more employees act as stewards of the system, the easier it is to build that muscle and the more efficient the org becomes. The best version of this makes sure the content shows up where you already work versus requiring that the spirit moves you to go hunting for something.

Facilitating good stewardship

In order for this system to work, everyone must contribute in a way that ensures the system is reliable and psychologically safe for both writers and readers. Here is a potpourri of thoughts and ideas on that.

For writers:

  • Be as clear and direct as possible, while striving not to be confused with a robot.
  • Be disciplined about publishing into the system. Everyone should reliably be publishing into the system according to the guidelines. The vast majority of communication at a company should be in service of actively advancing the work. There are certainly times when waxing or bounding ideas around is appropriate, but that time should be actively contained.
  • Be disciplined about not publishing into the system. It’s very easy to contribute to a pile-on of ideas. It’s much harder to exercise restraint such that you only contribute when it’s required or useful. Curious followers will likely be the most tempted to chime in without explicit invitation or cause, but they should seldom do so. The time to do it is when doing so will meaningfully improve or accelerate the work. It is also acceptable to chime in with words of support or encouragement.
  • Confirm the right people/distribution groups are included on every message. If you need to add others, default to cc’ing vs forwarding, so that everyone involved is always up-to-date on the latest without extra work required.
  • If you catch someone doing it wrong, it’s encouraged to remind them how to do it right. (In other words, you should feel comfortable saying something like “can you re-post this in the public channel where others can follow along?”)

For readers:

  • All information, across all phases, should default to open. There are times when read access should be restricted (see: bad transparency) but when you have the instinct to restrict read access, be honest with yourself about why. The thing to really check yourself against is whether politics is getting in the way.
  • Read access is not the same as write permissions.
  • Read everything sent directly to you. From there, you are responsible for deciding whether and how to action the information. It is the company’s and your colleague’s responsibility to proactively push critical information to the places where you will see it.
  • You manage your own notification preferences. So that you can stay in the loop without getting distracted.

Active curation and spotlighting of information (at the company and individual level)

Curation and spotlighting helps readers know what to pay attention to.

Curated information is packaged for a new, usually broader, audience to maximize awareness and comprehension. It helps everyone operate with more crossfunctional awareness. An example might be the summary of a board meeting or an email to everyone at the company about a newly-shipped product that explains what shipped and how it works.

To go back to the push/pull framing, curation is often about pushing information to the right audiences. Or, to ensure that the right altitude of information is shared to a broader audience. Rule of thumb: as the size of audience increases, so should the level of polish/curation.

Spotlighted work is highlighted for a new, usually broader, audience as something worthy of attention and/or emulation. The company All Hands is one example of a spotlighting mechanism for everyone at the organization because it brings work onto the company stage.

Curating and spotlighting can also happen at the organization, team, or working group level. By posting/sharing content across relevant channels, everyone helps information get to the right people at the right time.