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Too often, leaders ask for “everything” for a new project, then nothing happens. If this sounds familiar, here’s how to identify and break the cycle.

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Have you ever been pulled into an important project with someone much higher up at the company than you? It’s exciting! They don’t know exactly what they need to get started, so they ask you for everything. You get everything, and then, nothing happens. The project moves to the back burner.

A few months later and the project is back! But your data is out of date, so you have to go get everything again. Then back to the back burner, then the data is out of date, and back burner again.

Sound familiar? You’re stuck in the “get me everything” cycle.

Tales of the “get me everything” cycle

Once upon a time, I was a senior software engineer working with the CMO of a multi-billion dollar mortgage company to revamp the layout and consistency of our transactional emails. Transactional emails are sent out in response to specific events, like placing an order.

Mortgage workflows are highly regulated, and there were more than 75 messages that might go out in response to missing information, slow responses, and other issues. Ours were spread out over half a dozen systems with no master index or glossary.

“Get me all the emails” the CMO said, “and I’ll have my team check the layout, images, and wording. We’ll get you corrections and then everything will be consistent.” Not particularly challenging work, but important and highly visible.

We combed our systems and delivered a stack of 78 emails. But, things were busy and no one looked at the emails for a couple months. It was put on the back burner until the CEO asked about the consistency issue.

“We can’t start because the emails we have are out of date,” said the CMO. “We’re waiting for updated versions.”

Thrown under the bus, we gathered the latest versions of the emails, handed them over, and heard nothing for four months. When the CEO asked again, the emails were out of date and marketing was waiting on tech.

Marketing was waiting on tech for six months after that, and for three more months after that. In the end, we changed lots of email text for the legal department, but none for marketing.

Another time, I was working with an operations group that supported more than 50 internal reports. At any given time, two members of the team were working on modifications. Many reports only differed by one or two fields, while others used the same terms for different calculations.

It was a mess; some people were working off incomplete reports, some off reports with bad data, and power users kept spreadsheets of which fields to trust from which reports. The VP of Operations had enough and decided that he was going to sort through the mess.

“Get me everything! All the reports, all the fields, and all the calculations. I’ll tell you what goes where!”

We got him all the reports, fields, and calculations. By the time he had a chance to look, the data was out of date. The cycle repeated for more than a year before we gave up.

Two developers worked on this nonstop, but the VP never asked for any changes.

The “I don’t know how to start” cycle

The “get me everything” cycle begins when a person in authority has no idea how to begin a project, so they try to get a complete picture before starting. Since the asker can’t gather the information themselves, this seems like a reasonable request.

It really doesn’t matter how fast you compile the information, or how quickly you handle updates.

“Get me everything,” is an excuse. The other person doesn’t know how to begin, and no amount of speed and perfection on your part will change that.

By the time you gather “everything” two things will be true: the asker still won’t know how to begin, and the urgency of the project will have faded.

The project ends up on the back burner for a few months. When it becomes urgent again, the old “everything” is out of date. You have to start over while they hope that they will know how to begin by the time you get “everything” again. But of course, they won’t know.

Recognizing the cycle is the first step in breaking free.

How to recognize the cycle

The “get me everything” cycle has three critical elements:

  1. A person in authority who can’t admit they don’t know how to start
  2. A project where change is constant
  3. An issue that is important, but not urgent

The three elements feed into each other.

The asker must be a person in authority, someone high enough that you can’t just push back on having to do the work. Further, they must be insecure enough to see asking for help as a sign of weakness.

The project must be something where change is constant. The text of emails, the structure of reports, training guides, and other highly operational documents are always changing, and always a mess. If the pace of change slacked off, the mess wouldn’t loom so large or seem so intractable. There’s always a queue of pending changes, and never any time to step back and access the situation.

Finally, the task has to be important, but not urgent. If it wasn’t important, the asker would simply put “everything” on a corner of their desk and forget about it. Something must bring the issue up, like the CEO being embarrassed by the sloppy email branding, or work backing up because internal customers are using the wrong reports. When urgency strikes, the cycle repeats.

When someone in authority asks you to get them everything about a dynamic system, be on alert. When you have to gather everything twice, recognize that you’re probably in a cycle. The third time is when you break the cycle.

Breaking the cycle

You generally can’t slow the pace of change, decrease importance, or increase urgency. But, you can use empathy and iteration to help find a way to begin.

Remember, the cycle isn’t about you. You’re stuck because you are applying technical skills to a people problem. Being able to identify situations that call for empathy is a key skill for Staff+ engineers.

Here are two ways to approach the problem:

1. Find a delegate

The simplest solution is to find a delegate to replace the person in authority.

The CMO was lost because the emails were a pipeline for sales and legal, not marketing. The Operations VP was trying to make his people more efficient without actually using the reports.

In both cases, they were the wrong person for the job. They were in positions of authority within large organizations, and the work wasn’t urgent enough for them to prioritize. To create urgency, find the right person in their org and suggest they delegate. This will break two of the cycle’s elements: you’ll sidestep the authority’s insecurity and increase urgency in a single stroke.

Instead of getting everything a third time, try: “You’re too important to worry about email formatting. Why don’t I work directly with someone in your org?”

You’re trading the excitement of working with someone in authority for the satisfaction and visibility of getting the work done.

2. “Get me iterating”

Whether you can find a delegate or not, you’ll need to iterate on the problem. Break it down into small steps that produce results and lock in progress.

Don’t try to fix the formatting and text of 78 emails all at once. Fix the formatting of one email and make sure that everyone likes the new format. Then fix another and release the system again. Point out that the emails are already inconsistent, and releasing one at a time doesn’t make the problem worse.

As you go, build a map to document which email lives where. Once you finish the formatting, then work on the text. You can give the same response about consistency; you aren’t making the problem worse.

This is how we can change “get me everything” to “get me iterating”.

Reflections

The “get me everything” cycle occurs when you get pulled in to help on a dynamic system with an important but not urgent problem, and the asker doesn’t know how to start.

Recognize that the cycle isn’t about you! No amount of technical excellence on your part will break the cycle.

Instead, remember that your job isn’t to use your technical skills, it’s to make the project a success. Recognizing situations without technical solutions is a key skill that can help you to get to the Staff+ level.

Reach for empathy and iteration and break the cycle!