Being Transparent with our Customers Is Like Getting a Haircut

Scrum relies on transparency. All parties must be able to see what is being currently worked on and, as far as the product backlog is defined, what other work is planned for the future. Any decrease in transparency decreases the customer’s ability to inspect the product and adapt it to changing conditions (e.g. market demand), and can lead to diminished trust between the team and the customer. Transparency can be an intimidating concept for some people, perhaps because they are afraid that their mistakes or any hidden agendas will be exposed. But that is precisely why transparency is so critical to a culture of continuous improvement: you cannot improve what you cannot measure, and you cannot measure what you cannot see.

Think of a situation where you might get frustrated while waiting for something, like waiting for a meal at a restaurant. In that case, part of the frustration probably comes from not being able to see the work that is taking place. You know that something is happening — you know the chef must be mixing some ingredient with another, or perhaps the chef is still working on the previous customer’s order and hasn’t started on yours, or any number of other things — but you do not have any more detailed information than that.

Contrast that with how you feel while waiting for your barber or hairdresser to finish your haircut. You can see in real-time which part of your head is being cut, how your cut is looking so far, and you have a fair idea of how much is still left to do. If at any point during the haircut you change your mind about how you want your neckline to look or you remember that you wanted your sideburns a little higher, you can ask the barber to make the adjustments right there. The sense of frustration while waiting for the haircut is greatly diminished and you might actually be willing to wait a little longer so the barber can get your look just right, as you requested.

What is the difference between those two cases? The amount of transparency in the work that is being done. When the work is a black box that you can’t understand or control, it is easy to feel frustrated and even helpless. But when you can see the individual steps that are being taken to carry out your request, and you have a say in how they are done (to a certain extent; you wouldn’t tell your barber which scissors to use, because that’s his domain of knowledge and not yours), you feel more comfortable with the process and are more likely to be satisfied with the final outcome.

That is the importance of transparency in scrum. Our ability to interact and collaborate with our customers, and respond to changes in their needs, depends largely on how transparent we are with them regarding the work we are doing. That transparency can be achieved in many different ways: burndown charts, kanban boards, letting stakeholders listen in on our daily scrums, traditional status meetings, and other methods. As we strive to maintain a high level of transparency, we should remember (and teach our teams) that doing so is critical not only to our customers’ success, but to our own.