You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness.
— John McPhee (American writer)

When the highlight reel of our success is blemished, it’s tough to share what went wrong. But there’s a lot of value to be gained from hiding nothing. A project management tool helped me understand why such transparency matters.

Ascension to Basecamp

Project management is a task, it’s part of a job title, and it’s also a $1.2billion software industry. Long meetings, disjointed email threads, and repetitive revision of objectives were once the norm. Software is now changing all of that.

For our team, project management evolved when all our written communication moved from email to a platform called Basecamp. Our objectives sharpened. Discussions grew specific. Verbose email greetings and sign-offs vaporised. The transition to software-enabled project management was as smooth as it was surprisingly swift. It all ran without a hitch. For a while.

The Window-shopping Problem

On the 9th November, 2018, six months after the near-seamless transition to Basecamp, I logged on to the platform to post a group announcement. I couldn’t. Somehow, everything we’d ever put on Basecamp was frozen in read-only mode. I was stuck window shopping my team’s data. Something was wrong and it wasn’t a problem I could fix. It seemed like a pain but I imagined it was nothing compared to that of the Basecamp programmers scrambling to restore order.

The day after the incident, I was relieved to find that all project management tools on Basecamp had been fully restored. Effective team coordination, back in action. I thought nothing more of it, but a few days later, an unusual text box appeared atop the Basecamp user interface. It made me think again.

The Postmortem

Normally, I’d look at six panels on the screen: the Campfire (a sort of group chat room), Messages, To-Dos, Schedule, Check-ins, and Docs & Files. The new text spread out like an umbrella over the usual stuff. It was an announcement all about the read-only software glitch on Basecamp. The company was inviting users to click a link to a report. I had no idea that I was about to learn an eloquent lesson in owning one’s mistakes. 

Basecamp’s Chief Technology Officer, David Heinemeier Hansson (more affectionately known as DHH), had crafted a report detailing what went wrong on 9th of November.

The 688 word self-titled “postmortem” laid out in excruciating detail why the software broke. In short, Basecamp hit an upper storage limit for logging user actions. When the limit was reached, nothing new could be stored. No new actions could be recorded. Hence, the read-only window shopping version of the Basecamp interface on 9th November.

Let’s be clear. For Basecamp, their software glitch was a good problem to have. They were recording so many actions from their millions of users tapping away at millions of keyboards that they filled their databases up to the brim. In the best possible way, they were a victim of their tremendous success.

DHH set the endearing tone of the debrief with this:

“Some companies might choose to weasel around an outage like ours ... We’re going to take the scar in our uptime record as a reminder to do better.”

“We can’t promise to be perfect, but we promise always to keep you informed in a timely and completely transparent manner.”

The social media comments against DHH’s report were remarkably positive. DHH was praised for the transparency and admirable responsibility with which he owned Basecamp’s read-only outage.

Since the Basecamp software glitch, it has happened again. Twice. It’s quite normal for software to contain bugs. And still, DHH and the team continue to report on errors with openness and refreshing honesty. Basecamp is building trust with their customers, and the company continues to grow.

From reading a report like that from DHH, there’s something deeper to learn about transparency. 

The standard Basecamp logo (left) and the play on the logo (right) used during the admirably transparent announcement of a software glitch.

The standard Basecamp logo (left) and the play on the logo (right) used during the admirably transparent announcement of a software glitch.

Engineer Ben Hempstead enjoys the trust and transparency of a horizontal organization.

Why Transparency Matters

In 2005, a study published in Business & Society became one of the first to rigorously study the link between trust and organisational transparency. From two-person communication to high-level company organisation, surveys and analysis of annual company reports told an interesting tale of what transparency is and what it offers.

Transparency in an organisation can be defined, in part, as the level of “relevant, timely, and reliable information” provided to those to whom the organisation is accountable. Look again at DHH’s words:

“We can’t promise to be perfect, but we promise always to keep you informed in a timely and completely transparent manner.”

It has also been suggested that transparency diffuses through an organisation from building trust and reciprocity between two people. From there, two people become groups of interconnected departments.

For a company like Basecamp, where the workforce is remotely located throughout the globe, trust between colleagues is vital to the success of a company who has no centralised office.

Learning from a Company that Goes Against the Grain

DHH’s business partner, Jason Fried, is the CEO of Basecamp. He was once described by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as being “immune to Dogma”. If you listen to Fried speak on The Tim Ferriss Show (a popular business podcast), it’s clear that  Basecamp is a company that runs against the grain of expectation. They don’t care for key performance indicators, company growth numbers, or comparisons. They focus on delivering value, and care nothing for traditional workplace structure.

Fried values iteration as a key skill that is rarely taught. Aligned with DHH’s ownership of mistakes, Fried has a razor focus on shipping the product and improving it later. Who’s to say everything needs to be perfect first time?

Basecamp’s focus on what really matters might make it easier to understand DHH’s open postmortem on the company’s software glitch. But it doesn’t explain why the report resonated with the people who commented so positively on the matter through social media. So, why does such transparency resonate with people?

Part of Something More

I was once invited to a panel interview for a prestigious academic position. I sat next to my prospective supervisor. We shared the intimidating perspective of sitting across a mahogany table from several high-society board members. But the intellectual threat of that interview melted away when my would-be supervisor answered a panel question that revealed a vision. In a moment, the openness of sharing a vision made me feel part of something much bigger than myself. At the same time, I felt part of something I could contribute to. The act of transparency - rather than being confined to one granular part of the plan - motivated me. It inspired me.

Psychologically, transparency has notable impact on employee happiness.

Even when Basecamp’s DHH was wiping the blood from their open wound, he was sharing Basecamp’s vision of the future.

We’re going to take the scar in our uptime record as a reminder to do better.”

At the time of the Basecamp outage on 9th November, 2018, the company has around 2.8 million registered users. As of 2019, it’s over 3 million.

It’s easy to make mistakes and hide the truth. And it’s easy to invest a lot of time leading in the present without sharing our vision of the future. Whether you care about the perception of your team to outsiders, or how your team perceive you, transparency helps.

How could you be more positively transparent about your plans...and for whom?