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More than open and honest

 Our corporate values are slightly off. I can’t disagree with them. It’s hard to argue against integrity, honesty, passion, openness, respect, challenge, self-improvement, and accountability. Those are all good things, to be sure.

But are these corporate values the right ones for Microsoft? Say our contact with a key dependency, we’ll call him “Deadbeat,” tells me his team dropped a critical feature a month ago because their priorities didn’t match ours. Is it okay because they are being “honest”? Do I feel consoled because their triage was “open”?

No, Deadbeat is dead meat as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care if his team is truthful about breaking its promises. I’m not impressed that their catastrophic decisions are made in public. Our team is now knee deep in sewage with no nose clip and little time to recover.

That’s no excuse

People use Microsoft values to excuse themselves from guilt. Deadbeat says, “I know we agreed to ship that feature, and I respect your passion about it. It was a challenging decision, but we’re accountable to our dates and had to cut somewhere. I’m just being honest with you. Yeah, we should have told you earlier, but the triage meeting was open. I guess communication is an improvement area for us.”

Now, don’t you feel better? They were just exemplifying Microsoft values. Whoop-de-do. We are still in deep trouble with no advance notice. What went wrong?

You could say it was a lack of accountability, but they were accountable to a date and a set of priorities. Those other accountabilities just trumped ours.

The problem is more subtle and has a serious impact on how we develop software, collaborate across teams, and run our business. It starts with our first value, “Integrity and honesty.”

Eric AsideYou can find more effective ways of managing dependencies in You can depend on me.

I’ll be honest with you

People think integrity and honesty are synonyms, but they’re not. Honesty means you don’t lie. Integrity means your beliefs, words, and actions match.

Eric AsideI later found a marvelous quote comparing honesty and integrity. “Honesty is…conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words.” — Stephen R. Covey

You can be honest with no integrity (“Yes, I’m the one that back-stabbed you.”). You can be dishonest with strong integrity (“I’m okay with postponing the bug, I understand.”). Personally, I respect honesty, but I value integrity. You can believe someone who’s honest, but you can count on someone with integrity.

Deadbeat and his team were honest but lacked integrity. They agreed to ship the feature, but didn’t follow through. When they needed to cut our feature, Deadbeat didn’t contact us. He didn’t offer us alternatives, redress, or an apology. He didn’t take his word seriously.

It’s not easy

Honesty is easier than integrity. No one can blame you for being honest. Integrity requires courage and conviction. You must risk upsetting others, including your management and your peers, in order to stand by your beliefs. It’s far easier to compromise your standards, assuming you have any. That’s why integrity is so valuable.

It’s not easy, but when you demonstrate your personal integrity in difficult situations you gain people’s admiration. They may not agree with you, but they will know you are a person of character and substance; a person not easily bought or manipulated; a person to be respected.

Honesty is not a strong enough value upon which to hang our partnerships and our business. We must have integrity. Compromise on prices, plans, and particulars, not on principles. When you give your word, keep it. When you can’t keep your word, apologize, then make it right.

They seem to have an open door policy

But integrity is not enough to make cross-team collaboration and partnerships work. You need transparency. Transparency doesn’t even appear on the company values list.

People think open and transparent are synonyms, but they’re not. Open means you’re public, you have no secrets. Transparent means you share the who, how, what, when, and why of your decisions and actions.

You can be open without being transparent (“I don’t know why we made that decision, but the meeting was open.”). You can be closed yet be transparent (“The negotiations were behind closed doors, but this is our consensus decision and here’s why we made it and who was involved.”). Personally, I value transparency far more than openness. You have access to someone who’s open, but you can rely on someone who’s transparent.

Deadbeat and his team were open but not transparent. They didn’t share how or why they cut the feature we needed. In fact, they didn’t share the decision at all till it came up a month later. Had we known when the decision was made, we could have at least argued our case and then adjusted our plans.

Eric AsideNaturally, consulting all your partners before deciding, or even informing your partners promptly about decisions, is easier said than done. You must have a list of partners at the ready, and a process for notifying them that doesn’t get bogged down or bottlenecked. I recommend the SCR process described in Late specs: Fact of life or genetic defect?).

No place to hide

Openness is easier than transparency. It’s safer to conduct yourself in public, where social norms protect you. Transparency exposes your weaknesses. You don’t get to pick and choose what you will share. You must own up to your true situation and risk disapproval. It’s far easier to be open and hide behind, “All you had to do was ask.” When you are transparent, everyone always knows the score. That’s why transparency is so valuable.

It’s not easy, but when you are transparent even in crisis you gain people’s trust. They may not be happy with you now, but they will never doubt you. You become known, understood, and reliable.

Openness guarantees communication can happen, but not that it will. Transparency ensures our teams and our partners have the information they need to deliver on commitments. Make your schedule and status public. Share your bug queries, acceptance criteria, and build results with your partners. Celebrate promotions and successes, and talk candidly about failures and necessary improvements. Give those who work with you reason to believe in you.

Eric AsideWe’ve had an interesting internal debate recently around making people’s career stage transparent in the e-mail address book. On the positive side, promotions, role models, and who you are calibrated against become public. On the negative side, a class system is exposed, entry-level opinions may not be respected, and senior people may get differential treatment. It’s a tough call, but groups are tending toward transparency, which at least exposes the class system so that impropriety can be handled appropriately.

Not what I had in mind

You’re probably saying, “Of course, integrity and transparency are important, but so are honesty and openness. Aren’t you making a big fuss over minor word differences?” Don’t be so sure. Remember, I said the problem is subtle and has a serious impact on how we develop software, collaborate across teams, and run our business.

When people think honesty and openness form the bar, bad things can happen. While I’ve never regretted upholding my integrity or being transparent, honesty and openness can cause trouble even with the best of intentions.

Honesty can be cruel and heartless, but more importantly it can be deceptive and dysfunctional. That’s because people often don’t know the real truth, just what they currently believe. They can speak with sincere conviction yet be completely misguided. This leads to misunderstandings, wasted effort, and often animosity.

Openness has the same kind of issue. People don’t do everything in public for a reason. How you behave depends on who is there to see. I behave differently in private with my family or my team than I do in public meetings or talks. It’s not that I have something to hide; I don’t. It’s that my family and my team have context that the general public doesn’t. That’s why negotiation must be done in private in order to be effective. It’s intimacy and confidentiality that breed candor and flexibility.

Getting it right

My plea for integrity and transparency doesn’t mean I’m against honesty and openness. These are all exemplary values for us to follow. In particular, openness also means being receptive to the thoughts and ideas of others. The world would benefit greatly from an increase in that kind of openness.

But being honest and open falls short of what we need to be successful and can sometimes lead to unintended trouble. We need the integrity to mean what we say, say what we mean, and honor our words and beliefs with our actions. We need transparency in our decisions, our policies, and our projects to allow us to operate and collaborate knowing where we stand.

These may be small requests, but they have huge impact. There are people at Microsoft who feel threatened by transparency or lack the courage to uphold their integrity. They should look deep inside and change either who they are or where they work. For Microsoft to continue as a great company, our values need to mean more than words on a page.

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