Reading Making Work Visible with the Atomic Accelerator

Published in 2017, Making Work Visible by Dominica DeGrandis is an introduction to what she terms the “five thieves of time,” how they impact our ability to get work done, and how to expose them to be more productive.

While the book is geared toward software development and IT-related work, I think the content is applicable to pretty much any situation where you’re working on a team and have a clear set of goals to achieve. DeGrandis even makes this point herself right at the beginning with a charming analogy about doing home improvement projects with her husband.

“The tech sector does not have a monopoly on too much work to do. Talented people everywhere receive long to-do lists.”

Updating the Accelerator Curriculum

I found Making Work Visible while preparing for the Accelerator’s Cell Gamma to come on board. The two-year Accelerator curriculum includes an extensive reading list that covers many of the technical and non-technical aspects of our jobs as software consultants.

Unfortunately, given the historical of lack of diversity in tech, our reading list skewed very white and male, and many of the more technical books are also products of a distant past, some with publishing dates in years starting with 19! These elder statesmen of computer literature still provide a lot of really great foundational lessons, but I was specifically looking to diversify and modernize the reading slate, and I’m very happy to have added Making Work Visible to the curriculum.

An Introduction to Kanban

If you’re already well versed in methodologies like Agile, Scrum, Lean, and Kanban, nothing in Making Work Visible will be revelatory. This is definitely intended to be an introductory text for teams and companies that haven’t yet embraced the sticky notes, swimlanes, and story estimation lifestyle.

However, for recent college grads who haven’t been exposed to this in their classes (or their internships, for that matter), this book is an excellent introduction to these concepts and the power behind them — especially because DeGrandis doesn’t get bogged down in the terminology of Kanban or Scrum or what have you. Instead, she provides her own language (the five “time thieves”) to illustrate what any Agile methodology is ultimately trying to accomplish: exposing blockers, prioritizing tasks, and establishing a flow for getting work done.

Exposing the Five Thieves of Time

Making Work Visible provides simple, clear examples for each time thief and how to deal with them. There are delightful hand-drawn illustrations throughout and team exercises at the end of each chapter.

Drawing of a kanban sprint board showing a build-up of sticky notes under a "Validate" column, titled "Improve Flow by making work visible"
The “Validate Pit”

There are also lots of practical examples for structuring work boards, diagramming dependencies, and tracking quality metrics. If you’ve never tried to do an Agile project before, I think Making Work Visible would be a great place to start.

I enjoyed the idea of personifying the different anti-patterns that can rob you of productive time. This can make it easier to challenge harmful behaviors for a team that isn’t already practiced in these ways of thinking. It’s not that your coworkers are bad at planning; thief Unplanned Work and thief Conflicting Priorities have just been sneaking into the office each night and making off with your valuable time! Together, you can expose them and get your project back on track.

Making Women and Minority Authors in Tech Visible

I’m excited to have Making Work Visible as a part of my Accelerator curriculum going forward, as it’s a perfect introduction for our brand-new employees to the challenges we face every day and what we do to face them.

One of those challenges happens to be the diversity of voices in our industry. If there’s any lesson I can take from this book, it’s that acting with transparency can be immensely fruitful. To that end, I’m publishing here the current full reading list for the Ann Arbor Accelerator.

While I think every book in our list is excellent and does a great job at preparing our Accelerators to be the best possible software consultants, the majority of authors are still white men from the United States, and there is a distinct lack of people of color. I’m constantly on the hunt for new material, but I’d appreciate any feedback or suggestions from readers on ways to update this list for 2020 and beyond. And if you read Making Work Visible for yourself, I’d love to hear what you think!

Accelerator Reading List

This is the list for the Ann Arbor program; our Grand Rapids office maintains their own list, although there is plenty of overlap.

  • Accelerate – Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble
  • Agile Estimation and Planning – Mike Cohn
  • Agile Software Development – Bob Martin
  • All You Have To Do Is Ask – Wayne Baker
  • Cloud Native Patterns – Cornelia Davis
  • Conscious Business – Fred Kofman
  • Deep Work – Cal Newport
  • Emotional Agility – Susan David
  • Extreme Programming Explained – Kent Beck
  • First Things First – Stephen Covey
  • Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni
  • Lean UX – Jeff Gothelf, Josh Seidan
  • Making Work Visible – Dominica DeGrandis
  • Persuasive Presentations – Nancy Duarte
  • Radical Candor – Kim Scott
  • Radical Focus – Christina Wodtke
  • Thanks for the Feedback – Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen
  • The Pragmatic Programmer – Andrew Hunt, David Thomas
  • The Lean Startup – Eric Ries
  • The Secrets of Consulting – Gerald Weinberg

Note that this list is ordered alphabetically, not in the order we actually read these. It also doesn’t include a myriad of shorter essays, blogs, videos, podcasts, and other content that’s included as part of the curriculum. (These things tend to be easier to source from more diverse creators.)