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When Transparency Meets Inconsistency: My Philosophy on Sharing Openly Even As We Change Course

I’ve been fortunate to have many great mentors over the years, and as a result I try to spend a lot of time helping other founders.

When Buffer was going all the way with our self-management experiment, I was meeting weekly with someone who championed this concept within her company and successfully got the team started in this direction.

After several chats, Buffer hit a key phase of growth and I wasn’t able to connect with her for some months. During that same time, we were undergoing a big change in direction back toward more structure and reintroducing some hierarchy at Buffer.

About a month ago, I reached out to her and said, “We should talk again about self-management.”

So much had changed on our end around how we think about these things, and it didn’t feel great that I hadn’t updated her sooner.

One challenge of defaulting to transparency

This is a unique and potentially challenging outcome of our value of transparency that’s been on my mind for a while: What happens when we’re wrong?

We’ve been fairly upfront about this possibility from the start at Buffer, openly sharing the times that we’ve messed up or simply changed our minds.

But as we grow, we have more reach, and there’s potential for these ideas to spread further and trigger more people to be inspired by them and implement them.

As I reflected on the responsibility we have here, I shared this image on Facebook a couple of weeks ago:

when we're wrong

I wanted to expand my thinking and share more with you here, with the knowledge that it will likely change again.

We plan to stay experimental…

I distinctly remember the moment we realized that it was time to move away from some of the ideas of self-management.

It was shortly after our Sydney retreat, and Leo and I had both noticed that the team hadn’t grown at all in the time since the previous retreat.

Once we shared our concerns, there was a bit of an “Oh crap” moment, where we realized we needed to turn things around.

Some of the ways that Buffer is different today is based on us trying to make those changes.

At the same time, I hope we’re building the company in such a way that we have capacity to do these crazy experiments going forward.

We might change our thoughts several times on a topic. I can think of topics where we might have had five different iterations—and with each one we’re super optimistic and confident that this is going to be the right version.

If it takes six months and ends up being a failure, I hope we’ll still do that. I think that’s the company we want to have.

Realizing our mistakes doesn’t make me want to be less experimental or transparent. If anything, it makes me want to think about how we can retain the experimental nature we have and still feel like we’re doing the right thing for people.

It’s key for us to not say, “Oh, we can’t fail now.” There are risks, but if you take a step back you might realize it’s still worth it.

In a way, we maybe want to see more failures, because we need those to get to the successes.


…but we might validate the experiments first.

We want to keep experimenting a lot, but at the same time we are also 75+ people now. That amount of people, all going in one direction, has a momentum. It gets harder to steer that in a completely different direction and steer it back again.

I think we have to be a bit thoughtful about how we experiment. In the early days we could be crazy; now we want to validate ideas a little more before opening them up to the whole team.

We might want to be careful with moving the whole company in a new direction without validation.

Looking back on how we crossed over to self-management, we were not very lean.

We’ve made this mistake in product, too—we spent months building a new version of the Chrome extension only to scrap it after realizing we’d been working without getting any feedback at all.

In a way what we did with self-management was like similar—from one day to the next we went completely to these new ideas.

And we’ll keep sharing it all

Personally, I feel a lot of responsibility and obligation to anyone we’re lucky enough to have following along with our journey and perhaps trying some of the ideas we try.

We have been privileged to be given a bit of a megaphone in the startup space, and it feels important to me to be thoughtful with how we make use of it.

Although part of it is just that we’re just sharing our own stories and holding ourselves accountable, we try to thoughtful about what we put out there, what we encourage, and how we phrase it.

In general, we try to say “We tried it, here’s how it went” not “You should do this.”

As we grow the team, we have the opportunity to be even more open and have more people focused on sharing what we’re doing in different areas.

I feel pretty positive about having more capacity to go back and amend what we have shared, add updates with our new thinking.

If we expand our transparency in that way, it will give us more confidence to keep trying new things.


Inconsistency can be a tool for success

But in the end, it’s still up to the individual to decide—after all, just because something didn’t work for us doesn’t mean it won’t be a great solution for another team.

This is one of the most useful things I learned during AngelPad, where there are many different types of mentors.

When we started, they told us that every mentor will have strong opinions and will tell you what you should do. But you have to remember, it’s up to you. It’s your company.

The way we do things at Buffer isn’t the right way or the only way—sometimes it’s not even the right way for us!

If you’re part of a startup, I believe that your success might actually be defined by whether you are willing to be inconsistent.

I’ve learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is get contradictory advice. Because then you have to make the decision yourself.

What do you think—can you be both transparent and inconsistent? How do they work together? I’m keen to hear your take.

  • Absolutely love this post, Joel.

    From a business perspective, I think inconsistency can only work well in the context of transparency. If you’re just being inconsistent without sharing with your audience the why behind that seeming inconsistency, it creates distrust. But if you’re sharing why you seem to be inconsistent, what you’re learning through your experiments, success, failures, etc., then people will see that while certain actions are inconsistent, the why behind them is most likely consistent all the way through.

    • Wow @SarahHayes:disqus – you just gave me an “aha” moment! :) This is such a great point–>”If you’re just being inconsistent without sharing with your audience the why behind that seeming inconsistency, it creates distrust.” I can look back on moments that I’ve felt distrust from other leaders (as well as the MANY times I’ve sadly caused others to distrust ME, *womp womp*) — and that seems to be the common denominator. It’s OK to change your mind — A LOT — but be willing to share WHY with your audience so that you can maintain trust.

      This has been very helpful! I wasn’t expecting to have a lightbulb moment tonight, but thanks. I now know what I need to shift moving forward. :)

  • Jon Thompson

    Great article. I think in part you’re making the argument that being transparent and being experimental need not be in lock-step. Per your point, as you get larger, you have to be more thoughtful and more methodical before deploying new systems. That reality might explain why it appears so difficult to manage large organizations. As a result, I think we tend to blame the missteps of behemoths like HP and Microsoft on the difficulty of turning a large ship. So, does massive scale have to be massively inefficient? I don’t think so. I think we fear scale because we fear the difficult of making change as the company gets bigger, and we fear the cumbersome systems it demands. However, while growth might require ever more caution when introducing change, it does not require less transparency. My guess is that large companies fail more in the area of transparency than change management. I applaud you for being more thoughtful about changes as you approach 100 employees, and I applaud you for adhering to transparency. Keep up the good fight :)

  • @joelgascoigne I love this quote by marketing guru, Jay Abraham, “People are silently begging to be led.” When I learning everything I could possibly learn about marketing from Jay, this quote stuck with me. It can refer to your team, the public, or your customers. You’ve seen this not only in having to change from self-management to some sort of management but also being pioneers in a 100% remote and transparent business. I like the idea of validating ideas first, even before exposing them to the public. Think of this, when you’re dating, you try to share as much as possible with the other person to be as upfront, honest and transparent as possible. But sometimes it’s wise to hold some things back because that wisdom comes with growing when you’re ready to build deeper and take thing to the next level.

  • Laurel Ranson

    I believe that Buffer has grown because of inconsistency not in spite of it. You cannot have growth without experimentation. You cannot have experimentation without inconsistency. Success is the ultimate result. I have been researching your company as a possible place to apply for employment. Your culture seems to breed success for all that work there. Buffer is a success on so many different levels. What a great thing you have created, Joel!!

  • T.Nichols

    Can you be both transparent and inconsistent? Yes. It isn’t just about success, but in order to grow, to progress, you have to be transparent and inconsistent.

    Transparency, for me, is a lot like authenticity. It is your ability to be who you really are regardless of your environment or obstacle. Inconsistency is the right to simply change your mind or how you do something. When something doesn’t work, formulate a different plan and act on it.

    Maybe it isn’t inconsistency, but adaptability. I think inconsistent can be perceived as a negative word. And transparency and adaptability isn’t just for startups, but for everyone.

  • I agree with T. Nichols that adaptability is perhaps a more accurate description than inconsistency.

    My first impression from this article is that I feel as though Buffer has possibly experienced some lash back to what some people are labelling as “inconsistency” – my gut reaction is to reassure Buffer that their willingness to be open and transparent is of the utmost importance to their skillfulness at adaptability… and it truly is a skill. The two unquestionably go hand-in-hand.

    As mentioned in another comment, to successfully adapt as necessary (or as Eric Ries calls it – to pivot) without being completely transparent about those pivots is to breed distrust. I doubt that any supportable claims can be made of Buffer that they have been anything but completely open and honest. Transparency is not defined as “always being right”. I feel that some people who demand transparency may overlook this point.

    As yet another commenter mentioned, it is also very beneficial to followers for past blog posts to be updated with a simple line of “UPDATE: [link]” – which I’ve more or less seen in some cases, but perhaps a more thorough review and cross-reference of existing content would be beneficial.

    While it is absolutely a privilege for Buffer to have been given a megaphone of sorts in the startup space, quite the honour really; I feel that it is even more commendable that Buffer is using that megaphone to offer their own experience from this journey with anyone willing to follow it. It’s a beautiful example of creating a win-win, two-way street where both Buffer and their followers ultimately benefit.

    I love this statement Joel, “The way we do things at Buffer isn’t the right way or the only way—sometimes it’s not even the right way for us!” Having a background with horses and having followed many of the self-proclaimed “horse-whisperers” I can relate to this statement in a very profound way. It’s amazing how many experts feel confident in saying “my way is the right way” only to find themselves in a real pickle when it turns out that a few different variables suddenly suggests that maybe it wasn’t so “right” after all. Nothing will make that more abundantly clear in real hurry than a 1500 pound horse.

    “The only constant in life is change” – so proudly embrace, with continued humility, being adept at change and possessing the skill to adapt quickly when necessary, it’s a life skill many can use more practice with. You’re doing it right. :-)

  • Thanks for being as transparent as you are. I find your posts and experiments very inspiring.

    In my experience transparency comes with uncertainty – which might be the result of inconsistency. Within an organization this requires – among other things – a safe-to-try environment. As an organization grows running experiments in sub-groups makes this easier to achieve. We (200+) usually experiment with org changes with sub groups of diverse people that represent the entire company. Or a single team, depending on the nature of the change.

  • I love this concept. I’ve grown and changed so much over time and even when I’m feeling like I’m two steps forward and one step back sometimes, I’m still happy to be growing in an honest and open way. This post definitely is in line with how I feel.

  • Shantelle McDonald

    It is the transparency at Buffer which I find so inspiring! I would be more inclined to describe the “inconsistencies” as your evolutionary process. With the amount of growth you’ve achieved comes necessary change. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes (by Heraclitus), “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

    Change is inevitable, so I find nothing inconsistent with re-evaluating processes and exploring options to improve, especially since you are so open about sharing your experiences.

    Thank you for standing up for such honorable values and thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas!

  • When you’re at the bleeding edge of anything, there are bound to be mistakes and things that don’t work out like you hoped. But that’s comes with the territory of being at the forefront of innovating and pushing the envelope.
    Launch and learn. Everything is progress.

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