My motto: Make it visible

Nearly ten years ago, I read the wonderful book “Behind Closed Doors. Secrets of Great Management” by Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby. They shared a lot of valuable insights and tipps for my management career, but more important, gave a name to a trend I was pursuing much longer. In their book, they introduce the central aspect of the “Big Visible Chart”, a whiteboard that contains all the important work. This term combined several lines of thought that lingered in my head at the time without myself being able to fully express them. Let me reiterate some of them:

  • Extreme Feedback Devices (XFD) were a new concept back in the days. The aspect of physical interaction with a purely virtual software project thrilled me. Given a sensible choice of the feedback device, it represents project state in a intuitive manner.
  • Scrum and Kanban Boards got popular around the same time. I always rationally regarded them as poor man’s issue tracker, but the ability to really move things around instead of just clicking had something in itself.
  • My father always mentioned his Project Cockpit that he used in his company to maintain an overview of all upcoming and present projects. This cockpit is essentially a Scrum Board on project granularity. We use our variation with great success.
  • A lot of small everyday aspects required my attention much too often. Things like if the dishwasher in a shared appartment contains dirty or clean dishes always needed careful examination.

It was about time to weave all these motivations into one overarching motto that could guide my progress. The “Big Visible Chart” was the first step to this motto, but not the last. A big chart is really just a big information radiator and totally unsuited for the dishwasher use case. The motto needed to contain even more than “put all information on a central whiteboard”. I wasn’t able to word my motto until Bret Victor came along and held his talk “Inventing On Principle” (if you don’t know it, go and watch it now, I’ll be waiting). He talks about the personal mission statement that you should find to arrange your actions around it. That was the magical moment when everything fell into place for me. I knew my motto all along, but couldn’t spell it. And then, it was clear: “Make it visible”. My personal mission is to make things visible.

Let me try to give you a few examples where I applied my principle of making information visible:

  • I built a lot of Extreme Feedback Devices that range from single lamps over multi-colored displays to speech synthesis and even a little waterfall that gets switched on if things are “in a state of flux”, like being built on the CI server. All the devices are clearly perceivable and express information that would otherwise need to be actively pulled from different sources. I even wrote a book chapter about this topic and talk about it on conferences.
  • A lot of recurring tasks in my team are handled by paper tokens that get passed on when the job is done. Examples are the blog token (yes, it’s currently on my desk) for blog entries or the backup token as a reminder to bring in the remotely stored backup device and sync it. These tokens not only remind the next owner of his duty, but also act as a sign that you’ve accomplished your job, just like with task cards on the Scrum board.
  • If we need to work directly on a client server, we put on our “live server hat so that we are reminded to be extra careful (in german, there’s the idiom of “auf der hut sein”). But the hat is also a plain visible sign to everybody else to be a tad more silent and refrain from disturbing. Don’t talk to the hat! A lesser grade of “do not disturb” sign is the fully applied headphone.
  • Of course I built my own variation of my father’s Project Cockpit. It’s a great tracking device to never forget about any project, how sparse the actual activity might be.
  • And I solved the dishwasher case: The last action when clearing the dishes should be to already apply the next dishwasher tab. That way, whenever you open the dishwasher door, there are two possible states: if the tab case is empty, the dishes are clean (or somebody forgot to re-arm). If the tab is closed, you can be sure to have dirty dishes in the machine. The case gets re-opened during the next washing cycle.
  • An extra example might be the date of opening we write on the milk and juice cartons so you’ll know how long it has been open already.

All of these examples make information visible in place that would otherwise require you to collect it by sampling, measuring or asking around. Information radiators are typically big objects that typically do that job for you and present you the result. I’ve come to find that information radiators can be as little as a dishwasher tab in the right spot. The important aspect is to think about a way to make the information visible without much effort.

So if you repeatedly invest effort to gather all necessary data for an information, ask yourself: how could you automate or just formalize things so that you don’t have to gather the data, but have the information right before your eyes whenever you need it? It’s as simple as a little indicator on your mailbox that gets raised by the mailman or as complicated as a multi-colored LED in your faucet indicating the water temperature. The overarching principle is always to make information visible. It’s a very powerful motto to live by.

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