[Editor’s note: today’s post is an excerpt from Craig Gross’s new book, Open. You can read more about the book at GetOpen.com]
Being open takes some work on your behalf, and that work starts with some serious honesty. Can I tell you a story? This is a story that takes place in London, England, a few hundred years ago, which is mind-boggling to some of us Americans, since our country wasn’t even a country yet at the time of this story. Anyway, this was long before digital scales or even those round, hanging scales you see at the supermarket in the produce section, with the big red needle that helpfully tells you exactly how many pounds of kiwis you have. Back at the time of our story, scales were balance-style, like the kind you see Lady Justice holding out from her blindfolded face in statues in front of courthouses around the world.
Those types of scales operated based on a set of weights—you’d put the “one pound” weight on one side, then load up the other side with cabbages or mutton or what-have-you until the scales balanced. Voila: one pound of mutton.
Except it wasn’t always exactly a pound, because those types of scales were extraordinarily easy to manipulate. Take a weight labeled “one pound,” shave a couple of ounces off the bottom, and now you’re handing out fourteen ounces of mutton at the one-pound price. More profits for you, and you only have to gyp your customers and be a little dishonest.
In the midst of this parade of cheating and wheeling and dealing, a couple of London grocers got together and decided to be honest with each other. They agreed that it was best for their customers and for their reputations if they had honest scales—aside from the fact that it was the right thing to do—so they hatched a plan. They would regularly check each other’s scales. Once a week, one grocer went to the other and made sure all his weights balanced out, and then the first grocer got his weights assessed by the second one.
Guess what happened? Customers found out what was going on, word began to spread around town that you could trust these two grocers to have honest scales, so their businesses began to thrive. And you know how business works—if something is paying off for one guy, all the other guys in the same business start trying it out (just look at how many iPhone copies are out there now, even though touch-screen technology existed long before the iPhone made it popular). Other London grocers decided to join in the fun and began having their scales assessed, and all these grocers eventually banded together to form a sort of loose trade association that was called, and I’m not making this up here, the Most Worshipful Company of Livery Merchants.
Well, soon enough, other nongrocer merchants began hearing about this swell idea and decided to use it among themselves, and then the people in charge of the government got wind of it and thought it sounded like a good deal, and if you work in the modern-day UK National Measurement Office, then you have a couple of medieval grocers to thank for your job.
See what a little honesty can do?