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The Death Of Productivity: How transparency can destroy Agile teams

Retrium Team

What could your team accomplish if they were not afraid to fail in front of the boss?

President and Principal Agile Consultant for the Lankford Group, Todd Lankford examined this question and ways that that increased transparency may be having a greater impact on teams than managers originally guessed in the webinar, The Death Of Productivity: How Transparency Can Destroy Agile Teams.

In this webinar and Q&A, Todd shares the results of an in depth study of the Hawthorne effect, and the ways teams respond when given the space to fail without losing face. Ultimately providing ways agile teams can balance oversight, psychological safety, and productivity.

What we get wrong about transparency

Transparency is important to teams, Todd explains. We need transparency to have open, honest conversations. Without transparency, problems often go left unsolved. That doesn’t mean that transparency is a cure all for companies. Many managers believe that transparency: 

  • Improves team performance
  • Increases operational control 
  • Improves organizational learning

Sounds perfect right? Todd explains that- in the wrong team- transparency doesn’t do any of these things. He goes on to explain that in many teams performance, control, and learning actually stay flat or decrease with excessive oversight. Why is this? The Reverse Hawthorne Effect. 

What is the Hawthorne Effect?

“People, when being watched choose to increase their performance”

Sounds simple enough. You watch over your team and they are more likely to stay on task. Any school teacher can tell you the value proximity can play in behavior. But your team isn’t school children. And, as Todd explains, the Hawthorne Effect creates opposing reactions. He has observed:

  • Hiding behavior 
  • Reduced experimentation
  • Wasteful practices 
  • Productivity Loss

He isn’t alone in his observations. In 2012, Harvard’s Ethan S. Bernstein led The Transparency Paradox Field Experiment to surprising results for those that insist on oversight.

The Experiment

This experiment strived to answer the question, 

How does transparency affect productivity in the real world?

Examining a mobile phone factory that was designed specifically for increased visibility for workers and encouraged a competitive environment.

Phase I

In the first phase of the experiment, researchers wanted to learn about the transparency affected worker behavior. Did this building, designed specifically to increase manager oversight improve productivity? So the researchers were embedded as line workers on one line. The results showed a “Reverse Hawthorne Effect.” When managers were clearly visible, productivity decreased. A secret code of conduct existed between workers. That way, those that may be trying different methods to work were be alerted and return back to standard procedure. In this phase, researchers found that even though managers tried to encourage workers to speak up about new ideas, the teams did not have the psychological safety to fail in front of managers. Even if they had found better ways to perform. 

Phase II

In the second phase. A partition was created so one line could experience a decrease in transparency. The results? 

  • Increase in performance
  • Increase in teamwork 
  • Increase in healthy curiosity 

When given the opportunity to fail without notice, they found ways to improve. 

“If we didn’t need to hide things from the management levels, we could finish production so much faster.”
— PrecisionMobile operator in the study

As Todd explains, a critical element to deciding the right amount of oversight is determining who needs transparency and what needs to be transparency.

For Agile Teams

Whoever manages the work needs visibility of the work.

It is important for leadership to learn Sprint Backlogs are for Scrum Teams.The Sprint is the team’s metaphorical curtain. It gives the team the space to succeed, fail, and learn. The responsibilities for transparency, inspection, and adaptation that many are the team’s, not the managers.

For Management

Support the teams and afford them the privacy to manage their work. By giving teams space to self-manage, you as the leader create safety for experimentation. When they do need help, they will better know what specific obstacles in their way, and ways leadership can provide efficient resources.

For Community

Share knowledge across team boundaries.

As Todd started with, some transparency is vital. So how can organizations promote transparency without instigating that fear of failure? Todd shares the value of open-space format town halls and product-level cross-team retrospectives. Creating enterprise-wide communities of practice is a great way to promote the open exchange of ideas without impeding productivity and innovation.

Ultimately, understanding that not everyone needs access to all information is vital to allowing teams the space to build trust and psychological safety needed to experiment truly improve productivity. Through tools like safety checks, and town halls, teams can create the right amount of transparency for their team. So next time you are looking over the team's work ask yourself, do they have the space to work smarter instead of harder? 


Todd Lankford helps organizations simplify their Agile journey by building cultures that build better products.

His approach helps today’s enterprises simplify the way they work to build products their customers need in reduced time. Todd coaches executives, managers, and teams to cultivate the behaviors that embrace change and enable great products to emerge and thrive.

Todd is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Transformation Coach with over 25 years in consulting for over 60 Fortune 500 companies. He brings a unique blend of skills in product strategy, software development, user experience and engagement, and business know-how. He has been practicing Agile related frameworks and principles throughout his entire career.


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