Why Am I the Only One Doing Anything Around Here?

I remember one time, I was in the breakroom getting a cup of coffee. The counter seemed kind of dirty so I grabbed a handful of paper towels and wiped the counter down. As I was leaving the breakroom, a cup of coffee in hand, another person passed me entering the now-empty breakroom. I heard them exaggeratedly sigh and state, “This room is a mess! No one ever cleans it up except me. Guess I’ll just do everything around here.”

That made me feel pretty lousy. I had just cleaned up in there! So why did that other person think that no one else was doing anything?

In reality, if you were to ask any single person they would assert that they are working hard, doing what they think is important. And each person is probably sitting there, working on their tasks, thinking that they are the only one pulling the organization in a particular direction. Where does this disconnect come from? I suspect it comes from the fact that everyone is working on something, but these tasks are not aligned with one another.

As I’ve repeatedly stated, I’m a big fan of “management by wandering around”. When in leadership roles I try to get a lot of 1-on-1 time with people to get a view of what is actually going on. And a very common anecdote I hear is that people don’t know what is going on, that there is no clear communication from leadership or management on vision, strategy, or direction.

Having been on both sides of this issue, both as a leader and as a line engineer, this is something that I try very hard to address. The main focus is simply providing that communication, in as many formats and as many ways as you can. And you have to make sure those different presented messages are all in alignment with one another. You can’t send out an email defining some strategic priority, and then during a monthly status meeting show “Key Performance Indicators” that measure some completely different priority. As a leader, your vision has to be clear, simple, and unified.

You also have to ensure that the unified vision is being presented across multiple channels. This means doing many different things: diagrams, pictures, presentations, emails, impromptu water cooler conversations. Some people will read all your emails but tune out during your meetings. Others will ignore all your emails but listen carefully during a 1-on-1. You have to find a balance between impacting people’s productivity, but at the same time ensure that every person is hearing the messaging.

I remember one time when I was doing “management by wandering around”, I talked with an engineer that was deep into a task building a solution. They had spent several days already on this task and had a couple more days to go. But during the conversation, I realized this solution was based upon a higher-level architectural approach that we had pivoted away from. All the work this person was doing was for nothing.

I was frustrated, but a lot of the frustration was directed inwards. As mentioned above, this change in direction had not been communicated to this engineer in a way that they heard. Perhaps there had been an email or a meeting where it had been communicated, but it was not what was needed for this engineer. But imagine how that engineer felt. From their perspective they must have felt like they were the only one who knew what was going on. This underscores the importance of shared vision and frequent standups.

Another important piece of ensuring a shared vision is continuity and alignment across the sprint tasks and backlog items. This shows the importance of ensuring that user stories are properly decomposed with the correct exit criteria and effective design reviews. If the user story is just “Deploy a server”, then this can overlook important nuances, such as “we decided to use Red Hat instead of Centos”. Ensuring clearly written Definition of Done/Acceptance Criteria, including verbiage on how the sprint task will be tested and verified, can ensure that the tasks people are working on are in alignment with the complete vision.


Most people believe they are working hard on what they believe is important. The important task for a leader is to ensure that what people believe is important is aligned so that the team as a whole is moving in the same direction.

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