WikiLeaks: Challenging Attitudes to Transparency

5. Playing by the Rules in Business: Case Notes

How do these ‘rules of the game’ apply to corporate life? Indeed, should they apply, or should we be striving to break the rules?

I worked on a change programme some time ago in which a number of members of the sponsoring group (the directors of the client organisation) were actually in opposition to the programme.

Frankly, this was hardly a secret. It was openly acknowledged within the programme team. Meetings with some of the directors featured mischievous side comments or jibes at the programme. The director who most strongly supported the programme was quite open (privately) that he was pretty much locked in combat with his colleagues.

 But none of this was allowed to surface in public. Steering group meetings, though frequently tense, did not expose this fundamental truth. In private debriefing sessions it would be acknowledged that a director had raised an objection essentially to throw more obstacles in the path of the programme. This was not however put to the meeting. Publicly, the pretence of dealing with a bona fide objection was gone through like a ritual dance. The game was played.

I constructed a stakeholder analysis as part of my consultancy remit. As part of this work I had to classify the directors and their disposition towards the programme. To have suggested that they were supportive, or even neutral, would have been a travesty. So I marked them individually as somewhere between unsympathetic and trenchant opponents. I then suggested that we share the stakeholder analysis with the steering group.

The reaction to this suggestion from colleagues was one of horror. It was allowable to share these assessments in private, within the team. But to offer them to the steering group – the subjects of the assessment – was not. My suggestion was ‘over conscientious’. No doubt my colleagues would have endorsed Sir David Manning’s assertion that:

“The public good is as much about discretion and restraint as it is about public disclosure.”

 Of course, I have some sympathy with my colleagues. In common with many change programmes, the management of the steering group was an exercise in ‘careful orchestration’. Breaking the rules without first preparing the ground could have divided the directors further and played into the hands of the programme’s opponents.

But I would suggest that a disabling schism in the sponsoring group already existed: we were just all pretending otherwise.

4 thoughts on “WikiLeaks: Challenging Attitudes to Transparency

  1. Insightful – one thing that occurs to me is that the multitude of communication media available to us all make it incredibly easy to avoid ‘difficult’ or ‘honest’ conversations. So we email, text or IM, in fact anything to avoid a productive duplex conversation. IMHO we are getting worse, not better, at leadership and communication.

    As for Wikileaks we now know that some people thought (amongst other startling revelations) that George Osborne and David Cameron were inexperienced…. no shit sherlock. As the author says – there is nothing remotely earth shattering here – just some one who doesnt want to play the game and no, remarkably, is branded a sex pest. Well I never

    1. Rich – I endorse your comments.

      Your perspective on communications and technology is especially interesting. So-called enabling technology (everything from email to groupware & social media) has exponentially increased our ability to fire off vast volumes of often very abbreviated and ambiguous messages. Like mortar shells, we only have a very approximate idea of what happens when they land.

      We have been seduced into thinking that this = communication. It doesn’t: we’ve lost the ability to identify instances where nuance and subtlety require face-to-face, or at least verbal, interaction. And for those of us who regard these modes of communication as a chore (sadly, this includes too many people in leadership positions) it has provided a ready made excuse to actually avoid interaction.

      I will be posting a longer comment on technology & communication in the next few days.

      Thanks very much for your feedback.


  2. Attack is the best defence. The US Govt has only itself to blame. It circulated these cables to a distribution list of 3 million, it is claimed. It also prior argued that full transparency makes government accountable. What did it expect? Now it has egg on its face. It reminds me of organisations that create awful internal bureaucracies and then blame the government for imposing bureaucracy, hoping to divert responsibility elsewhere. This is shadow-side behaviour. Leaders need to rise above these word games and examine what they are doing in the first place that gives rise to them. By exercising crude power (e.g. on companies to boycott Wikileaks) makes you look less powerful. As Gordon Brown’s memoir says, the more powerful Fred Goodwin became the more he complained and undermined his power.

    1. Appreciated Bill – I find myself in warm agreement with your stance.

      I am increasingly impatient with organisational posturing and pretence around transparency, openness and honesty (and indeed other ubiquitously quoted, inherently ‘good’ values).

      This pretence can be seen in public and private organisations, from national governments to global corporations. These motherhood values are advertised as being part of the organization’s DNA. When someone applies the values too literally however (and exposes a little hypocrisy, for example) the organization’s reaction is to pull the iron fist from the velvet glove and attempt to crush the ‘dissident’.

      Before someone accuses me of being a ‘bleeding heart’, I’m reconciled to iron fist-type organizations being successful and even necessary in some contexts. What I cannot be reconciled to is the systematic cloaking of intentions and the careful disguising of true organizational character.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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