How Transparency Strangles Strategy

April 19, 2017

What do the Trump White House and Apple Computer have in common? Not much, save for their obedience to secrecy and a shared distaste for transparency.

trump-cook-face-to-faceApple is notoriously closed mouthed, particularly when it comes to product designs and release schedules. The Trump administration, too. Take, for example, its plan to put a five-year seal on White House visitor logs.

Each has drawn moans from the public, especially from assigned journalists and public interest activists. Their job, of course, is to get behind the walls of rhetoric and red tape to tell followers what’s really up. By way of the Screen play, their strategy is to invoke the public’s right to know, sometimes even to incite it.

By degrees, the governments and companies that receive this flack are keen to make it go away, typically running diverting plays (Red Herrings and Deflects) to minimize or distract the complainers. Reputation peddlers whisper to politicos and CEOs that to snub these calls for openness is to risk their most precious asset.

Except, of course, that if they actually do all of what a reporter or consultant suggests, they risk giving away state and corporate secrets that are in and of themselves of equal or greater value than said reputations.

As he is often inclined to remind us, Donald Trump cannot and will not tell us all of what he’s doing and thinking. Many see it as a mask for incompetence or self-interest. Trump claims it’s only to keep his rivals off balance. I don’t want to broadcast my shot, is a favored locker room quip.

In the heated markets of politics and business, there is merit to keeping your competition in the dark, even at the risk of alienating your base and customers.

If a North Korean attache paid a late-hour visit to the oval office it’d surely be news, but a story on such a rendezvous would only complicate the president’s plans and strategy for managing the real threat of a real rogue state. In this respect, it’s hard to argue that some things just aren’t for public consumption. There is a useful limit to transparency.

Tim Cook isn’t so ornery. But he’s just as protective of what he knows is his competitive advantage in the hyper-speed technology sector. Despite the many lures that are tossed his way — Apple can’t innovate, Cook is no Jobs — he knows better than to take the bait and instead to play his cards at a time and place of his choosing.

Of course the principle difference between these principals is that, broadly, one is trusted and one is not.  A caller this week to the SiriusXM Michael Smerconish show lectured the host that transparency is the antidote to mistrust — the implication being that players who lack trust must share more of themselves and their motives to get it back. In theory, that would be Donald Trump.

But if Trump (or Cook for that matter) have done anything correctly, it has been to insist on their rights to privacy and the word that transparency-lovers hate — Secrecy. Each knows that too much offered is too much given. In the heated markets of politics and business, there is merit to keeping your competition in the dark, even at the risk of alienating your base and customers, respectively.

The real issue is not transparency but trust, the topic of another blog at least. But even when trust is low, it’s no reason to compromise what is necessarily proprietary. Do that, and you take on the even larger risk of low performance and the fated words, You’re fired.

Post by Alan Kelly

Photo credit: ZDNet