Make Work Visible: A sure way to spark progress and get unstuck

written by  Ryan Seamons

I wanted to convince my kids to play the ukulele. Music has always been important—my mother and father both made music a critical part of my upbringing.

But how do I convince my kids to play?

I could have just told them they had to. I could have bribed them. I could have just set up time with their grandmother to learn, since she had offered.

Instead I used a trick I’ve seen work time and time again to get a group to make progress.

Make it visible.

My wife and I incepted ukulele on our kids. We bought ukuleles for each of our kids, printed out songs to tape to the wall, and started playing ukulele ourselves much more often.

Once they started playing, then other support came so naturally. We told them Grandma had offered lessons, and they excitedly accepted. We started learning songs as a family together. And we began challenging them with harder and harder songs.

Playing ukulele with 4 of my 5 kids

By altering the environment, you can have dramatic influence over what those around you choose to do.

The Trap of Invisibility

Invisibility is a silent killer of productivity. Team members often think they are on the same page, but rarely are. Just ask any team questions like “What’s the top priority?” or “Why are we working on this?” and you’ll get radically different answers.

When work is hidden or invisible you’ll encounter multiple issues:

  • You work on too much at once
  • You have conflicting priorities
  • You leave unknown dependencies
  • You end up reacting more than planning

When these happen, one helpful antidote is to make your work visible.

How to Make Your Work Visible

So how do you make work visible?

One other approach I take in my work and with my wife is to react to stress by blitzing on visualizing the work. When we are feeling stuck or stressed with work or family we have a simple exercise that helps. It’s worked for years and is a sure way to move forward. We call it a whiteboard session. We take everything in our heads and make it visible. We capture a list of issues/problems/projects/etc. Then we organize it by grouping like ideas and prioritizing. Then we decide what we’re going to do moving forward.

Here are some principles that can spark ideas about how to make work visible on your time:

Write things down. It’s tempting to talk about ideas instead of writing them down. But writing is far more clear and helpful than talking. Having a Capture/Organize/Decide whiteboard session (the process my wife and I used) is one way to do this. Other ways include writing a 1-pager, writing down goals, or making a list of who needs to do what by when.

Have a shared space for tasks. A document can be one place. I recommend dropbox paper, roam research, or a bullet journal for tasks involving one or two people. For larger teams, a shared list using a tool like Trello or Asana can be helpful.

Use an inbox. Whether it’s customer requests, bug fixes, or stakeholder projects, having a simple process and place to triage makes life easier for everyone.

You don’t have to overengineer any of these. But left invisible, people will eventually be frustrated and your team will feel stuck.

What could you make more visible in your work?

About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

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