The benefits of transparency

This past Tuesday, I spent the day surrounded by the leading thinkers and doers in the field of behavior design at the Design For Action conference in DC.

One of the most insightful talks I heard was from Michael Norton, a professor at HBS. His talk covered Transparency and Trust – How organizations—from companies to governments— can gain the trust of their key stakeholders (from customers to constituents) to increase both buy in and buying.

I’ll recap two anecdotes that Norton shared and then add some of my take aways

Anecdote 1

Norton shared a story about a locksmith who started out his career like many of us. He wasn’t very good at performing tasks quickly. He would fiddle, cuss and sweat until he got the got the problem door open. His customers would observe his work and assume that it was hard, and then happily pay him $70 for unlocking their door.

Over time, he became a master locksmith. He could now open any lock in a matter of seconds. He was much faster. His true hourly rate had increased dramatically. Only there was a problem. His customers couldn’t see his skill and experience and therefore they felt ripped off for paying $70 for only a few minutes worth of work.

To combat this, the locksmith slowed things down. He would spend time getting out all his tools and explain what he was doing to the customer. Remarkably, his customers were happier when he took longer.

A website analogy to this is Kayak. Try running a search for flights on the site and you’ll notice that Kayak shows you flights in real-time as the search engine returns results. Norton has run tests on a site that only shows the final results. Satisfaction and purchasing improves when the work is shown. Even if it takes longer to show the results.

kayak screen shot

Anecdote 2

Norton has worked with another large organization that has a transparency problem. The government. He shared a some shocking figures that relate to transparency.

According to the figure below, high percentages of people respond “No” to the question, “have you ever used a government program”, when they are actually beneficiaries of a government program.

Take for instance the GI Bill. 40% of those surveyed that have used the GI Bill say they have never used a government program. This blows my mind.

The government is providing trillions of dollars of benefits, but those receiving the benefits do not know it.

Norton approached the problem transparency with the city of Boston by helping citizens to visualize the work the city was doing. This site has been popular and helped create transparency.

Source: How Government Can Restore the Faith of Citizens -

Source: How Government Can Restore the Faith of Citizens –

Takeaway #1

Showing is always better than telling. This statement is obvious, but we are all guilty of telling. A company tells it’s employee it values them. We tell our customers we  care about their needs. We tell others at work we are working hard. We tell someone we love them.

Transparency is about showing. Telling is easy, but showing is hard. I once set up a live video stream of my team (a group of actuaries). I can’t think of things that are more boring than watching insurance product development, but many people loved the stream. It brought a whole new level of transparency to our work. You could actually see us collaborating and working hard. What can you do to show not tell?

Takeaway #2

Visualizations can be powerful storytellers. We are working with our kids to help them see what goes into keeping our house running (99% done by my amazing wife). We’ve started with a long list that shows who performs each task. I hope the takeaway is “wow. Mom does these 84 things and I only have to do these 4 things. I am getting a great deal.” While I don’t have high hopes that this produces the desired change, the city of Boston is a encouraging example. If the city of Boston can use a simple website to improve the perception of government, perhaps our family can use transparency to change the perception of chores.

How can you use showing (not telling) for good? Are there ways you can improve transparency?


2 thoughts on “The benefits of transparency

  1. That’s pretty interesting stuff. I can see the value in all that you shared. I wonder during our support raising process, if showing (mapping) the places that we have visited would offer a better understanding of how we are working during this time to achieve our goal of deployment to Uganda… Thanks for sharing this!

    • Jeremy, I think that’s a great idea. I think it would be interesting to see places on the map you’ve visited and seeing that others have decided to support you. You’re spending a lot of time and energy traveling around and people that haven’t done this people can’t understand what that’s like. By creating the visual you are making it easier for potential supporters to empathize with you and your family.

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