The Importance of the Invisibles (Book Review)

When I read Tom DeMarco’s classic I book Peopleware some time ago, one small part of the book stuck with me. He briefly discusses the idea that some people on teams are Catalysts, people who seem to help a team but who didn’t stand out. As an example, DeMarco describes one person:

“ During her twelve years at the company, the woman in question had never worked on a project that had been anything other than a huge success. It wasn’t obvious what she was adding, but projects always succeeded when she was around.”

This brief acknowledgement of the contribution of someone who wasn’t a star can make to a team stuck with me as something that made sense, but which I never thought about before. David Zweig’s book Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion is an entire book that describes the role of people like this, and thus made a big impression as well. It’s not that some of the people Zweig describes are not incredibly talented and skilled; they are. It’s just that they aren’t the people you think about when you consider what went into a successful concert, perfume, building, or diplomatic discussion.

Invisibles helps you to understand the importance of people you don’t normally think of in our lives, and also explains how their under the radar existence both helps them be effective, but also is enjoyable for them. In addition to learning about what invisibles are and what makes them tick, you also learn a bit about how the traits of invisibles are useful, even if you are someone who enjoys roles in the spotlight.

Invisibles is a surprisingly entertaining and engaging book that not only made its point, but also taught me quite a bit about some professions I knew little about. This book starts with the premise that “invisibles” all share 3 traits, and then introduces you to a few people who illustrate those ideas. I got a review copy of the book because I was intrigued by the premise. As I started the book I thought that it was mis-titled. It seemed less about invisibles themselves, than the jobs they do. But it is through a deeper understanding of the work, and how the people perform their work that you understand what makes invisibles tick. Along the way you also learn a bit about leadership, management, and motivation. At one point, Zweig explains how the desire of some invisibles to help others leads both to very effective groups and projects, and (sometimes) poor individual performance and I was the connection the “Catalyst” role Tom DeMarco describes in Peopleware, and the relevance of this book to people who work in or with teams of any kind, but espectially agile teams.
It’s important to note that not all of the invisibles are all that invisible. One example was a Director of Photography, a role that often is quiet visible on movie credits. But for the most part, you probably didn’t know that many of these people existed, and yet they are essential. (The structural engineer who worked on Falling Water, was responsible for the structure not falling down, in spite of Frank Lloyd Wrights’s design, for example). The book ends by illustrating how we often notice these invisible roles only when the persons performing them fail, or when we don’t engage them to do their jobs.

Having read this book, I’m realizing that I sometimes took the importance of invisibles for granted. Sometimes inwardly focused star performers are more effective when being helped by someone who can help keep the team focused on the goal. This isn’t the message that we are often told. The usual message is that it’s a star performer who saves the day. One recent exception is the Lego Movie (which I won’t claim to be anything more than a fun, self-aware film, but I have seem it a few times with my 7 year old). It is reassuring to see real stories of the value of people who are not in the spotlight.

In software development much of the useful work happens among teams of skilled professionals, all of whom need the work of the others to produce really great products. As an advocate for agile practices, and a Scrum Master, I realized that the importance of individual enablers. While I get to facilitate meetings and play some central roles, I also know that at the core, a good Scrum Master is a servant leaders, for whom the best praise is praise directed at the team.
Invisibles doesn’t torment you with its message that there are 3 traits that invisibles have. It tells stories and examples to makes its point, and even if you don’t fully buy it’s message, you end up having learned some things you didn’t know and with some things to think about.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, and how much it helped me to learn and made me think. If you like books about work style, motivation, or are just a curious person, this book is worth a look.

Books and other media I mentioned above