Return to site

Step 4:


Visible Work

· 12 Steps

In this post we are going to look at introducing visible work, or observable work, with a view to creating a new kind of work unit.

That work unit will allow you to test whether or not your work has value for customers and it will take no more than 2 days to create.

That is an aggressive timescale but it's also an enjoyable one. It tests people. Like gamification, a concept people deal with all the time on smartphones, it invites people to come into work to solve a small puzzle.

That's the essence of FLOW. Smaller work units, shorter timescales between team interactions, shorter route to customer feedback, better opportunities to create value early.

But the big gain is found through work becoming highly visible on a collection of Wall Visualisations.

Visible work has numerous advantages:

  • Work can be observed and therefore more people can contribute to the design of solutions and the appropriate way to work - we get the benefit of collective intelligence
  • Work cooks and matures over time in place of large planning sessions that try to second-guess the development of a project over its lifespan
  • Work can be devised in smaller units that everyone can take a view on - do they add value or not
  • The Walls can be venues for all kinds of discussions.
  • More risks and issues can be exposed
  • People can interact more around decisions

Units of visible work

Visible work is central to that and to FLOW. It takes place in the context of creating these new shorter work cycles, or work units. Starting to sound complicated?

Well look at it like this. Work has to be visible to everyone and making it visible means breaking down all the things we need to do to get a task done. The more you can expose about these tasks, the better you are able to observe and contribute.

Here's an example:

Suppose you had a team of people devising an online survey and your aspiration is to take no more than two days to design it, two days to execute, and a day to interpret. The work involves IT and the business and traditionally would have been stated as a requirement by the latter and handed over to the former. Here's how that might begin to break down in a visible place:

  1. As the FLOW owner I want to organise consensus on the desired outcomes of an online survey and a narrative survey at locations

  2. As the FLOW owner I need a draft list of questions to ask service customers in an online survey

    1. I need to devise categories for the questions and describe potential outcomes that the answers will yield

    2. I need to organise a standup to socialise the draft

  3. As an analyst I need to choose a survey tool

  4. As an analyst I need to convert the draft into a survey

  5. As an analyst I need to pilot the survey

  6. As a FLOW owner I need an evaluation of instant communications for the survey: Twitter, WhatsApp etc

And so on. everybody knows what's going on, what needs to be done, who the work is being done for and why.

In Agile those work units would be Sprints, made up of a number of User Stories. We want to recompose that idea into something more dynamic, not only shorter but also highly visible and therefore interactive.

We have already underlined that FLOW work units are much shorter but their essence is that they are also visible and teams and domain experts participate in creating and refining them. One further step - teams can collaborate in making decisions about value and whether to continue or pivot. Short, visible, collaborative.

Being visible has many advantages, and the book talks about them, but here is one that we might have overlooked:

Being visible helps document the organisation's learning and it helps learning to accumulate. People can share ideas in asynchronous as well as synchronous ways. The walls of the building become alive with what you are doing and what you are learning.

Visible Work

The visible work movement, or what was sometimes referred to as Observable Work, dates back to the mid to late-2000s. And perhaps it is too much to call it a movement, yet. Nonetheless, a small debate began and people like Jim McGee and Greg Lloyd pitched in on the importance of visible work.

While McGee was writing in 2010, he had initiated this discussion as early as 2002.

As a knowledge worker, much of what I get paid for happens inside my own head. Before the advent of a more or less ubiquitous digital environment, however, that head work used to generate a variety of markers and visible manifestations.​

He pointed out that the "visible manifestations" had the advantage of allowing people to observe work-in-progress and get a sense of how well-baked a set of ideas might be. And of course when work is visible people interact around it.

We particularly like McGee's observation that work had become "invisible" and therefore harder to manage, just as we need it to be more efficient and more useful.

In essence much, if not all, of what we do has disappeared into the laptop. Gains in personal productivity, as he puts it, have been acquired at the expense of organisational learning.

Along with that, interaction has dried up and the essence of knowledge work has been lost. What is that essence?

It is something that we point out in FLOW. The essence of knowledge work, especially right now, is that most of what we do is brand new. We have little opportunity to copy work done earlier or rely on repetition.

And we work in an environment where information is overabundant. Our challenge is not just that work is not getting the advantages of being socialised. It's also that there's too much out there. We cannot manage alone.

These ideas were endorsed by people like Lloyd, whose company make the E2.0 platform, Traction. E2.0 if you remember was popular before the big consultancies began to sell the concept of Social Business. Two things emerged from this debate:

1. It was generally accepted that software development had advanced the cause of visible or observable work more than any other section of the knowledge economy. The concepts of version tracking, iterative development and output testing, at least offered up a flow of visible, shared experience around work.

2. New tools like feeds, were making some elements of work more visible. However, they were visible only in the sense that conversations about work were available in a feed or a stream.

At the same time, software developers were beginning to use more visible techniques borrowed from Lean and KanBan. Agile teams generally began using Post-Its to walk through any given problem or to represent the major Epics and Stories that lie at the heart of that discipline.

Having said all that, the levels of visibility people were producing were still not matching the needs of organisations to revert to a more social and interactive culture. yes there was visibility but was there real interaction?

Visible work and social interaction

Knowledge work relies on smart people to share ideas and knowledge and for those to accumulate and become true organisational learning.

Organisations in the past were not under the pressure they are under today to deliver multiple streams of innovation simultaneously.

Any firm right now, and any public agency, is faced with trying to make sense of AI/ML IoT, Blockchain, disintermediation caused by business platforms, continuous delivery, new patterns of global trade, global cash oversight, complex supply chains, new business ecosystems, and heightened political risk.

The organisation is also more porous and will become even more so. As companies become more familiar and experienced at working with ecosystems, we anticipate more use of micro-outsourcing (the use of small contracts to fulfil part of a development or marketing program), ecosystems and other small company relationships.

Lately the idea of visible work has resurfaced, though pretty much in the context of how to make yourself visible in work in order to further your career. We offered our own ideas in this area based on practice. Fin wrote about the benefits of extreme visualisation a year back.

We favour extreme visualisation.

The diagram above is a simplified version of FLOW in practice which shows an extreme form of visual representation not just of work but also of venues for social interaction. Each of the blocks represents a visualised process

The challenges with introducing extreme visualisation are not so great as to be a serious inhibitor. Nonetheless they need looking at. But we suggest you do that in the context of a FLOW Circle. In other words, within the context of a positive attempt to consider how you will launch an extreme work visibility and improved social interaction program.

A few sample walls

Here are a few examples of FLOW Walls in action. In the book we list about 15 that would form part of a coherent approach to continuous innovation. Below you see a work breakdown wall (or Project Wall), an Appreciation Wall, and a Customer (segmentation) Wall. The book covers many of Wall options so these three are just a sample. Like all work activity, improvement comes with practice so it really would pay to read the book and keep returning to this website.

The Big Objective

Your aim in work is to describe business goals in terms of work units that you can achieve in a much short cycle time than you are doing now. That cycle time is the amount of time it takes to complete a work unit.

We've described work units elsewhere but in essence what we are talking about is the fastest route to creating something of value to a customer. If that sounds vague it is because we want to introduce the idea as a discipline rather than as a fully fledged accounting system.

We will talk elsewhere about how to think of value and how to analyse it. But even when we get to that point, we will talk about value in terms of small, medium and large rather than precise dollar amounts. We rarely have time to make precise estimates and anyway most projects get reworked, meaning that precision is often a waste of time.

OU way of thinking about units of work is a contrast to what you experience in Agile work methods.

In Agile, work is divided into Epics and Stories. Maybe one way to think about FLOW is to say, hang on, each story has to have an "angle".

And like a real story-angle in film or in a book, it has to make sense alongside other parts of the story angle or angles.


That angle is its value. A unit of work is the total body of work needed to create some value or to support its delivery.

Essentially, what we mean by this is that work is just work unless you know where it will create value and so your work breakdown needs to be guided by what we've called a minimum sustainable delivery (MSD) matrix.

What set of features can you put together that you can reasonably expect a set of customers will be able to respond to?

That sounds easy. But it's the second part to the question that poses the bigger challenge. How can you do this continuously, in a stream of innovations that go live al the time?

That MSD will be made up of a series of work units (features, functions, adaptations to architecture, system demands) that form some kind of cohesive whole. These work units should take 2 days maximum.

So your big objective is to create those work units and to do so in such a way that when combined into an MSD they will give customers an opportunity to signal what they value or don't value.

We'll go into that later but for now it's important to think about how to gain acceptance for visible work. All work breakdown and work-in-progress will be visualised so that it can become the venue for conversations about how to create value.

Introducing extreme visualisation

The simple steps and inhibitors to beginning visible work are:

1. SPACE. Do you have sufficient Wall Space? In Paddy Power, one of the most important walls is in the corridor. It's there because everybody has to walk past it. Everybody has to see it. To do good visible work you need a lot of wall space or you need to be willing to use dividers that will be permanently in place (i.e. will not be borrowed by other teams). Whiteboards can be a useful place to start, but they will get wiped! If you start by using whiteboards, remember to take photos of each stage of a visible project. Most importantly don't use a meeting room. You need somewhere public.

2. ANTICIPATING RESISTANCE. We have recommended elsewhere that the places to begin are the Customer Wall or the Executive Portfolio Wall.

It can be difficult to coax executives into doing visible work. More than any other part of the organisation, members of the executive suite prefer to sustain mystery around their decision making. We'll say more about that in a later step.

The Customer Wall gives you a chance to play to the needs of the organisation - you need to segment customers better, you need to discuss customer goals and customer access, you need to make customer feedback visible etc. All these point to Customer Walls being an area less likely to meet resistance.

3. ADAPTATION. Given that most organisations will be using some form of visualisation, it pays to roll an extreme visualisation program into that or vice versa. It might be that you have a pressing project and that can be the focal point for beginning extreme visibility. Great. Go for it. That's what we talked about when interviewing Sean Twomey at Paddy Power. Sean gives a great account of how they invented short cycle times and what it takes to get there - it is essential reading alongside this Step.

4. RESEARCH. Customer Walls need some social media research or research in the call-centre files if they are to be effective. This is a good thing. Making a decision in a FLOW circle to commission a small amount of research on segmentation or feedback gives you data, and data shows you're not just there to pass the tie of day. And it gives you the opportunity to share new information publicly. The data will go up on the wall.

Equally if the decision is to go with an Executive Portfolio Wall, you need to collate data on all the projects in play. There is more on both of these steps in our post on customer segmentation and upcoming in our post on Executive Portfolio Walls. Bear in mind here the goal is not the work breakdown. It is rationalising the portfolio.

5. THE FIRST DRAFT. Doing visible work is a bit like hanging up the washing. People see things you might like to keep hidden or, just as uncomfortable, you and your colleagues will struggle to get a session working well right off the bat. It takes experience to do Walls like Customer and Executive.

Now, that experience can be bought in for the day in the shape of a facilitator. But it also resides in your team. The person that likes to anticipate. Yes, the one who is quite thoughtful and can work through the session ahead of time to see the pitfalls and then figure out how to bring people together....

She's the one who should hold the markers and take the lead. For sure, don't let an actual leader become too prominent. For sure, don't let an actual leader become too prominent. People will hang back and wait to be led.

6. REPORTING. Resist the temptation to write this project or process up. If you need to write something up it defeats the point. Whatever you arrive at, it is there on the wall. If you delegate a write-up task to someone then everything will go into a laptop and, worse, you will get one person's interpretation of what happened. Keep it live. Use photos not reports.

7. TOOLS TO HAVE TO HAND. To be effective there is some preparation. It pays to already be thinking about a Learning Wall.

  • THE LEARNING WALL. All that means at this stage is a sacred space that you can use to document what you are learning from this process.
  • A GO TO MARKET PLAN. Most development work really needs to be couched within a GO-To-MARKET plan or a template that the firm recognises as a valid and disciplined way to think about the market when you are creating products or services. We've sketched out a GTM template in the book.
  • A CAMERA. A smartphone is good enough but document and share what you are doing and do it visually. The reason for this is not just that we habitually take photos these days. The reason is as we state above. Having a visual record will allow you to resist the temptation to write it up.
All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly