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Make the invisible, visible
Invisible work is useful work that no one else can see. It’s generally not a good idea to do too much invisible work. Over enough time, you’ll eventually feel like the company is ungrateful to you. A sense of bitter unfairness will pervade your everyday thoughts. Stay this way long enough and you’ll feel there’s nothing left to do but leave.
There are three common reasons for why good work ends up invisible: legibility, audience, and values.
Legibility or rather the lack of it is the most common problem for why people do invisible work. It’s extremely common to those who occupy both highly technical and highly people-oriented positions.
As a person in a technical position, you will have an inherent understanding of the importance of a particular piece of work in relation to the technical components you are responsible for. For example, you may believe that refactoring a particular component is extremely essential, useful work. You are probably right. However, very few will understand the value of such work. It’s easy to blame that immediately on those around you as simply not technical enough. But that’s not true either. The same lack of value perception will accrue to highly technical staff who are removed from the problem.
As a person in a people-oriented position, you will have an inherent understanding of the importance of team dynamics. You employ skills that leverage individuals to make adjustments that will eventually improve the team. For example, you may serve as a connector of people, constantly passing information that you feel is important for various parties to know. You may believe that this continuous act is essential for team success. You are probably right. However, very few will understand the value of such work. It’s easy to blame that on lack of caring, but those around you may care just as much about the team and still not understand the value that this effort brings.
In both cases, it is fundamentally hard to contextualize why what you do is important because it is not legible to others. It becomes crucial to therefore make it legible.
Let’s say you know English but everyone around you knows Spanish. Do you: 1) try to teach everyone English or 2) translate English to Spanish? You’d probably find such a question silly: 2 is going to be the winning strategy by a long shot!
But in practice, the vast majority of people who are inundated with invisible work will actually employ strategy 1 because it feels like the most natural way to do something when the differences don’t immediately appear as large as two different languages. I’m here to tell you that they are that large. Contextualize your work by translating it into a language that others can actually understand.
The second most common reason for invisible work is improperly segmenting your audience. This happens frequently to those who work in highly cross-functional or cross-organization capacities.
In these situations, your audience is frequently very large. Your audience includes your stakeholders, your boss, the direct team you work with, your stakeholders’ bosses, and executives if your projects are large enough.
The most common mistake to employ in this situation is to not tailor your messaging to each audience segment and instead send them all the same message. It can be tempting to do this because the act of segmenting each audience group and providing tailored messaging can feel both overwhelming and inefficient. While it may indeed be overwhelming, it is not inefficient. The consequences of improper messaging to audience segments means that you end up doing invisible work. Wishing that everyone could just read between the lines for what’s relevant to them is not going to work. You’ll need to provide the messaging that each audience segment is going to care about.
If you’re overwhelmed with this task, then prioritize ruthlessly. Not all audience segments are created equal. The larger the project, the more audience segments will actually obey the Pareto principle. Only a few specific segments are going to overwhelmingly matter. Focus on those segments.
The last reason for invisible work is a fundamental value misalignment between you and your direct chain of command.
Unfortunately, this one is not fixable. Because it’s not fixable, it’s essential to make sure that this is truly the reason. Validate that the reason for your invisible work is not legibility or audience first before coming to this point of no return.
You have really two choices before you when this situation arises: either leave that chain of command or adjust your judgment to fit theirs. Anything in the in-between will put you in a undesirable spot. If you leave, you can go find a place that is more in-line with your judgment of value. You’ll be more obviously rewarded in such an event. If you stay, then change your perception of value to fit your chain of command’s. Changing a person’s mind is always, always worth a few shots on goal. However, it’s important to recognize that it is not a winning long-term strategy. If the first few serious attempts to do not, do not think that you’ll somehow win a war of attrition. If over enough attempts you haven’t seen improvement, you should move on by adjusting your values or changing command.
It’s important to understand that no one is really right or wrong in this situation. Naturally, you’ll probably feel like you’re the one in the right. You could be convinced that your chain of command is delusional and plain wrong. But — they are the chain of command. Your job contains a requirement to meet the intent of that chain of command. If you cannot do this, then you are not effectively fulfilling it.
Make the invisible, visible
Just because something is useful doesn’t mean that it’s therefore valued. It may grate at your internal sense of fairness to read this, but let’s put that aside and speak practically for the time being. Humans are simply not going to inherently value something, even if it is somehow objectively useful. Not even at a company that explicitly says that it does. Take the initiative to make your work visible to others so that they can understand the value that you are bringing.
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