Can’t fix it? Make it more visible

Making a problem you can’t fix more visible to those who can doesn’t always get things changed, but it’s way more effective than just being frustrated and complaining about leaders not doing anything. Doing this well has been one of the most effective ways we’ve found to influence without authority.

It can be frustrating to find yourself in a situation where you see a problem but don’t have the power to fix—and the people who do have the power don’t seem to care. In this episode, we expand on the advice we often give our clients, “If you can’t fix it, make it more visible,” and we show how you can use that approach to influence a solution when you don’t have authority to just fix things.

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Episode transcription

Peter Green

Over here at Humanizing Work Headquarters, we’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to influence without authority. Both Richard and I had some natural ability for that early in our careers. We were both team members who were good at the role we were hired to do–Richard as a software developer and me as a software tester. We both loved doing the actual work, but not so much the bureaucracy that sometimes surrounded it. Our work frequently felt like it was harder than it should be, due to ineffective processes, tools that definitely weren’t built for us, and things that felt like they should be automated or just gotten rid of altogether.

Unfortunately, neither of us had job titles like manager or director, so we had to figure out how to influence things without any direct authority. Over several years, we figured out how to do that well enough that we were eventually given positional authority in leadership roles at our respective companies.

Richard Lawrence

One of the most effective tools we found in our early careers has now become one of our most offered pieces of advice: “If you can’t fix it, make it more visible.”

In today’s episode we’ll dig deeper into that advice and share a couple of our favorite examples of someone having a hard problem they couldn’t figure out how to change themselves, finding a way to make it more visible, and enlisting help from those who could make the change. We’ll explain why we think this principle works so well and a few simple steps you can use to apply it to any challenge you’re fed up with. Do you have a hard problem you wish you had authority to fix? Stick around for our advice on how to make it visible. But first, a quick reminder that this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work company.


Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. To that end, we do training and coaching in three areas:

  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, experiments, and backlogs
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work


If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and if you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on and schedule a free conversation with us to see if there’s a good fit.

When we say, “make it more visible,” you may be thinking of a picture or graphic, and that is often the case. However, we mean that phrase a bit more broadly. When something is hard to change, we want someone who can do something about it to see what we see.

With that broader definition, making it visible doesn’t have to be graphical.  It could be as simple as sharing a set of customer quotes that highlight a common pain or a job to be done. Or you might make it visible by sharing a single metric, like “Here’s the average cycle time in our current process.”

With either of those examples, as long as someone who can do something about the problem might look at it and say “Ah, I see what you mean,” we’ve done our job of making it visible.


It is often true that a graphic like a chart or a diagram turns out to be the best tool to make our point. The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies here. The prior examples that Richard shared of customer quotes or cycle time metric don’t need 1,000 words to create clarity. But, if the situation is more complexed or nuanced, visualizing it will often be better than a long-winded narrative about it.

Creating a graphic representation of a situation helps us understand tricky problems by doing three things: it helps us focus, pattern match, and collaborate with others in understanding the problem. Let’s look briefly at each one of those benefits.

  1. First, Focus: When things are swirling in our heads, it can feel a bit like a tangled mess. As we start sketching it out, getting it down on paper on a whiteboard, we often find the few important things that matter. Sometimes we have to iterate through a few drafts of that visual but making it visible to ourselves helps us create clarity about the current situation.
  2. Pattern Matching: We are naturally better at recognizing patterns visually. Diagrams, charts, and graphs often reveal a trend, a repetition, or a connection between data we would have otherwise overlooked.
  3. Collaborative Sense Making: No one individual has a complete understanding of a situation. You see one part, I see another, neither of us has the complete picture. But, as we make it visible, we can help others see what we do, and vice versa. Collaboratively contributing to a visual image enables this shared understanding in a much faster and more concrete way than simple language can.

So where do we start when we’re in that frustrating situation where we don’t have authority to make a change? Maybe previous attempts don’t seem to be working. It’s easy at this point to just disengage, to throw our hands up and say, “They just don’t get it!”

And the thing is, they probably really don’t get it–at least they don’t get it the way you do. They almost certainly have a different point of view, different priorities, different incentives, maybe even different values.


Not to mention, the further up you go in an organization the less information you have and the more distorted information you have about what’s really going on, on the ground. It’s not necessarily that people are trying to hide things from you or mislead you. It’s just the natural cognitive bias we all have: the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is our tendency to assume that what we know is obvious to everybody. Once we learn something, we sort of forget that we learned it and our brains treat it as something we’ve always known. This leads to a tendency to share less info than we should. As a result, leaders just don’t know all the things that they’d really benefit from knowing.


So what do we do about that?

To quote one of our favorite sources, coach Dale Emery, we can’t make anyone do anything, but we might be able to change a point of view–theirs, ours, maybe both. And we do this by making things more visible to them that may seem obvious or clear to us.


So, the first thing we often need to make visible is the current state. How do we see things? What’s the problem? Why is the problem important to solve? And most importantly, why is the problem important to the person who can do something about it?


I told this story back in Ep. 112, where we were talking about Cross-Functional teams, so I’ll just do a quick recap of it here. A PO I was working with wanted to make the case for moving from four dependent teams to a few cross-functional ones. She reported to a VP of product, the team members on those teams reported to four of her peers, who reported to the VP of engineering. So there wasn’t a simple way to make a decision here.  So, this PO analyzed the data from the past quarter, and what she found was that the average cycle time for any given request was two months, and that half of the requests required re-work at some point. Those are two metrics the VPs would care about since they correlated pretty directly with business outcomes. She made that visible, but also wanted to explain WHY it took an average of two months to finish a request. So she created a process diagram that showed how work flowed from idea to delivery, and it was messy and complex. Rather than try to simplify it, she just showed it to the VPs that could make the change, pointing out how messed up the situation was, and then shared the two metrics.

Her previous attempts to move to cross-functional teams had failed because the Product Owner hadn’t really clarified why the current functional teams were a problem, and why that problem mattered to the VPs. But once she made the current state visible with that picture and those two metrics, they were immediately open to her suggestions on how to solve it.

She had that good idea of a possible future state: a cross functional team or two. She shared how that would work and then her forecast for improvements to the lead time and the rework metrics, and it was almost immediately adopted. That’s the second thing you may need to make visible: what solution or options do we have and what benefits do they bring?


We saw a great example of this from one of our Advanced CSPO course participants. In the week on roadmaps, we teach a roadmapping model that we’ve adapted from our friend Luke Hohmann. It’s focused on showing the relationship between features and various other things that explain, “why those features at that time?” This often includes things like market events and rhythms, technical dependencies, and target markets you may be trying to reach with a particular feature.

For this particular Product Owner, though, the biggest factor shaping her team’s output was a really high support load that she could directly trace to unaddressed technical debt. She’d tried to get fixing that technical debt to the top of the backlog, but stakeholders always wanted more features instead.


So, to make visible the potential impact of fixing the tech debt, she did two versions of her roadmap. One showed the upcoming features with the status quo. Leave the tec debt as-is. Another showed what would happen if they fixed the technical debt: the support load would go down, and all future features would come in faster. It turned out that the fix pretty much paid for itself within a quarter and continued paying off indefinitely.

She made that visible to her leaders and stakeholders and got approval to make the change.


Finally, it’s worth mentioning that someone with the power to change things may come to see what you see and may still not choose to make the change you’re advocating for. Assuming good intentions—which is where we always prefer to start—this is a signal that they see something you don’t see. Maybe your solution optimizes for solving the local problem but has obstacles or side effects at a larger scale. To make sense of this, we’ll point you back to episode 130 on the 5 levels of resistance and how you can use that to make sense of and learn from resistance to your proposed change.

Making a problem you can’t fix more visible to those who can doesn’t always get things changed, but it’s way more effective than just being frustrated and complaining about leaders not doing anything. Doing this well has been one of the most effective ways we’ve found to influence without authority.

Give this a try in your context, and tell us how it goes. You can drop a comment on Youtube or LinkedIn or shoot us an email at Thanks for tuning in!


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