February 14, 2021

Break open the seal and let the light in


I love the great forcing function of reality.

Like when a startup publishes their entire funding history. Or when charities post all of their revenues, donations and expenses. Or when software companies reveal public salary details of every team member. Or when the favorite restaurant has an open kitchen to reassure customers of their impeccable hygiene conditions.

They’re breaking open the seal and letting the light in, trusting that it’s not going to burn them alive.

Brandeis, the supreme court justice who pioneered the concept of right to privacy, is famous for his maxim:

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

In his renowned article on what publicity can do, he outlined how transparency with respect to the dissemination of information promotes the social acceptance of an idea or institution. That publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. And in fact, the original version of his quotation, while not as lyrical, still holds up:

If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects. There’s a powerful business application of this maxim.

This topic has been a great passion of mine since the first day of wearing a nametag. Because in my experience, anytime anyone gives themselves less incentive to get away with bad behavior through a healthy dose of social pressure, it’s better for everyone.

What’s more, the sunlight principle also has applications on a productivity level. Employees can introduce sunlight in their interactions to help build accountability, which helps build momentum.

Hoffman, one of my favorite entrepreneurial mystics, explains that speed is more important than having an exquisitely run organization. You don’t have time to be patient and wait for things to work out, he says, you have to act quickly and decisively. There’s always a lot of change, and much of it isn’t voluntary. In the interest of speed, you might even surprise or blindside your people to reduce the time required to make and implement important decisions.

This doesn’t mean throw your boss under the bus, but merely expose them to more sunlight.

Say you need a final answer on the design of your new landing page. Don’t send a calendar invite and set up a brainstorming meeting and spend forty minutes of everyone’s time hashing out the details.

Simply walk up to the creative director’s desk with two pieces of paper in your hand, present them with the different design options, ask them to quickly pick a or b, thank them for their decision, and let them get back to work.

Catch them off guard if you have to. Force the decision to be made publicly and quickly.

It will be fine, and more importantly, it will be fast.

Whose behavior could you positively influence by introducing a little sunlight?

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