Information “leaks” dominated the news cycle during the election, and have dogged the new administration since then. Businesses and nonprofit organizations also struggle with leaks, small and large.
In both the political and private spheres, leaks cause an outsized emotional reaction and a cycle of dysfunction – shock, embarrassment, feelings of betrayal, calls to find and punish the leakers, flurries of damage control and excuse-making, and a chilling effect on teamwork and collaboration in an effort to prevent future leaks. Organizations end up making more and more decisions with a smaller and smaller group of people – and are later surprised when decisions that sounded so good in a tiny group of like minds don’t land so well with their employees, customers, or the public.
Before email and the internet, leaks rarely grew into floods. Very few leaks were interesting enough to catch the attention of the local, much less the national, press. Documents had to be passed in dark parking garages. Using a leak to damage a person’s or company’s reputation took a lot of work – one phone call or clandestine meeting at a time. Most leaks were small drips that quickly dried up.
Today, a leaked document can go around the world, and a whispered conversation end up in a reporter’s tweet, within minutes. In our organizations, confidential documents get sent to the wrong printer, or someone mistypes an email address and ends up cc-ing the entire company. The sheer number of people exposed to a leak can make those tiny drips accumulate into a pool large enough to tip the ship.
So, is the problem the leaks, or the fact that so much information is deemed confidential or sensitive? We guard information like bulldogs, because we still believe information is powerful only if its distribution is limited. If we have information that someone else doesn’t, we think we have an advantage. We believe that the longer we hold on to that information, the more time we have to implement plans and policies that other people aren’t going to like.
Let’s think about a new approach to information, that will neutralize leaks before they can damage your organization:
- “Declassify” as much information as possible. What if we decided that only 1% of the information we have is truly worth protecting, and 99% could be freely shared with employees, customers, and the public? In today’s connected world, there are not many unique competitive advantages. By sharing your information widely, you can unleash the power of people inside and outside of your organization to amplify and change that information into powerful new ideas, products and solutions. We spend millions on information security, but the vast amount of information is not worth the money we spend to keep it safe.
- Explain why you aren’t declassifying the rest. Yes, some information is truly important to protect, at least in the short term. There are statutory and legal restrictions, like SEC rules around sharing material information. Some secrets keep our country safe. Your medical records are nobody’s business. Take the time to tell people why some information is confidential, and they will help you keep it safe. Instead of leaking the memo they find on the printer, they’ll bring it to their manager’s attention.
- Be decisive. Yes, your plans to raise prices might drive away some customers or energize your competitors to undercut you. But the sooner you implement those plans (assuming you’ve done a careful analysis of the consequences), the sooner you can reap the increased revenues. Your plans to lay off 10% of your staff might crush employee morale, but the sooner you implement those plans (assuming you’ve done a good job of retaining the employees you really want to keep and reducing the work, not just the workers), the sooner you can reap the cost savings and rebuild your team. If you can make decisions quickly, there’s little time for information to leak.
We spend a huge amount of energy working to prevent leaks, and plugging those we failed to prevent. Let’s instead use that energy to work, in the open, together with our colleagues, to make our organizations – and our communities – the best they can be.
Previously published on LinkedIn