Being Real: more notes on radical transparency

Information Architects Japan have published a great guide to What Works on the Web — a good read for anyone wanting to do business online.

One section touches upon what I’ve been calling radical transparency — something which can shock clients more used to their suppliers spinning bull.

The openness with which we communicate here is not common. It has gotten some people suspicious and angry. We talk about clients that screwed us over (without mentioning their name, or even giving hints of course), contracts we didn’t get because we were not good enough, we shoot against people that are potential clients, we mess with one of the lungs of the blogosphere and one of the biggest marketing agency in the world started to get nervous after we opened fire against them and their unprofessional dubious practices.

This openness is to a certain degree an experiment, to a certain degree unavoidable, as it goes back to the character of iA’s peculiar owner. iA’s openness is based on the assumption: That being real works better that being virtual. In the so called virtual world as well as in the real world. Yes, in the business world as well: Because if you show your clients who you are, you are more likely to get the ones that understand you.

The definite reality check on that one is yet to come. But we are pretty optimistic.

I’ve written about transparency before, but it’s great to find a like-minded firm. Hat tip to Zern Liew.

Scaring the shit out of clients

It was Oscar Wilde or G B Shaw or — oh, somebody interesting — who, when accused of shocking people, replied to the effect that people should be shocked a good deal more often. Or offended. Anyway, I can’t find the right quote so here’s a different one.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

That’s Wilde.

Yesterday we ruffled a client’s feathers. We were invited to tender for a web development project. Our response was, in essence, “Yeah we’re interested — but not if you’re going to do it that way. We don’t think that’ll work because [reasons]. We strongly recommend doing it [some other way]. Before we go any further, is it cool for us to tender that way, knowing that’s not what you asked for? Oh, and here’s the keys to our intranet, so you can see the dialog which led to this conclusion.”


Someone’s worldview was gunned down ruthlessly! Politely, but we did use phrases like “high-risk death march”.

Now I should say that one of us worked with this client for almost a decade and the other has worked with them on two projects in the last year. So our comments were based on some knowledge of the organisation and its needs as well as our own professional opinions. Nevertheless, what we said was shocking.

I’ve always wondered why clear, direct communication is so rare in business.
People seem almost afraid to say what they mean. “Don’t upset the client!” So a recommendation like “Process A is dangerous and you should change that immediately or risk almost certain failure” becomes a mealy-mouthed “Is everyone happy with the assumptions relating to Process A?”

All urgency is drained away. The project continues flying serenely towards the looming mountain.

But don’t upset the client.

If your recommendation is for major change, when do you broach the subject?
Sign up to the “wrong” concept of the project and then try to change it? Leave it until people have spent more time going down the wrong path, and the deadline is closer? No, something so important should be communicated as soon as possible.

Organisations aren’t used to people speaking quite so directly. When it happens, it’s like a splash of iced water into the face. And sometimes, that splash into alertness is precisely what’s needed.

Releasing the Black Hawk crash video was A Good Thing

[Update 13 April 2012: It turned out that the Black Hawk wasn’t a perfectly good helicopter after all. I will eventually update this post. Perhaps. But today I’ll be linking to this post because the Department of Defence has respected the wishes of the family and not released the Inquiry Officer Report into the death of Sapper Jamie Larcombe. I think that’s wrong for the reasons set out in this post.]

Frame grab of Black Hawk helicopter crash on HMAS Kanimbla: click for YouTube videoAn open letter to family and friends of those who died in the crash of the Black Hawk helicopter on HMAS Kanimbla, and to those who survived.

I understand why you didn’t want the crash video made public. Every time you see it, you’ll re-live that crash. And every time, you’ll feel that black void of horror creeping back up into your mind. The horror may stay with you for years. It’s pretty fucked, I know.

But despite the on-going pain it inevitably causes, I think it’s not only reasonable that such videos be made public, I think it’s essential.

In 1992, there was another accident. During an army live-fire exercise, an assault rifle accidentally discharged and a soldier died. A very good friend of mine was holding that rifle. And while both a military inquiry and a civilian coronial inquest agreed it was an accident and found my friend blameless, the post-traumatic stress and guilt stayed with him for years — to the point where it became unbearable and he hanged himself at the end of 1996.

His parents were devastated. I wasn’t too thrilled either, having cut him down from the tree in my back yard and, later, helped carry him to his grave.

Some of us reckon the army hadn’t taken proper care of one of their own. The 2005 Senate inquiry into the The effectiveness of Australia’s military justice system agreed.

As a direct result of Senate recommendations, the inquiry into the Black Hawk crash was headed by a civilian judge — the first time that’d happened. And that judge declared the video should be released. It was right and proper that he do so.

Secrecy provides a breeding-ground for corruption.

Secrecy can be used to cover up incompetence.

Secrecy is, of course, essential in many military operations. But when it comes to finding out why a perfectly good helicopter slammed into the deck of a ship and then dragged two fine men to their deaths, secrecy has no place. Justice needs to be done — out of respect to those men, and out of respect to every man and woman who chooses to serve the Australian people in the armed forces.

Justice not only needs to be done, we need to see that it’s being done — and that means putting the evidence on the public record.

I’m sorry you’ve had to re-live the disaster. I know even reading this letter will hurt. I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight too, having re-lived my own story. That’s the price of Justice. It’s worth paying.

Sydney Opera House hacked, disingenuous

This morning’s Sydney Morning Herald has a story about how the Sydney Opera House website was hacked. It’s a nice explanation for the masses about how these things work.

But I think the SOH’s Claire Swaffield is disingenuous when she says that no customer data was disclosed.

Sure, the SOH customer database wasn’t affected. But if trojans were installed on visitors’ computers, then their data could well have been compromised — and the SOH doesn’t know how long that was happening.

Ms Swaffield’s comment is good for the SOH’s PR spin, maybe, but it isn’t the reality. A far more useful and, dare I say it, responsible statement would have been to say that while the SOH data wasn’t compromised, users should check their computers for infection — particularly if they’re not 100% sure their maintenance is up to date.