Early in my career, I was subjected to the so-called “bring me a rock” phenomenon and the experience left me with a sense of frustration which has stuck with me ever since.
This phenomenon happens when a manager cannot or will not communicate their goals clearly and succinctly. Subordinates repeatedly try to fulfill their manager’s expectations through multiple attempts of bringing them a rock (i.e., proposal, product, process, etc.). Each time, the rock isn’t quite right – with the manager producing another requirement. Eventually, the manager becomes satisfied or the subordinates wearily give up.
A bring-me-a-rock sequence might look like this:
Boss: I have an important and urgent project for you. Bring me a rock.
Subordinate: <To her/himself> If I ask too many questions, I will appear stupid and not essential. I’ll do some research on rocks to figure out what’s popular right now. After significant work, Tada! Here’s a really interesting rock.
Boss: What’s this? It isn’t the rock I wanted. It’s much too big.
Subordinate: Speculating to him/herself. Aha, this isn’t a rock to prop open a heavy door. More likely it’s for a paperweight. Let’s make sure I deliver a rock with some color in it so it looks good on the boss’ desk. Excitedly hands rock to boss…
Boss: Why is this rock yellowish? Red would have been a much better choice. Bring me a red rock.
Subordinate: I wonder what would happen if I just painted the rock red. That would be fast and economical but it might not fit with our sustainability push. I will get the team to help me find a non-heavy red rock. Two weeks later…
Boss: Hey, this rock is pretty nice. Thank you. But why isn’t it round?
You get the idea. Incomplete requirements from the manager makes the task much harder for the subordinate, leading to a sense of helplessness and frustration. Even if the subordinate eventually produces an approved result, the manager is likely to complain it took too long and was over budget.
In my experience there are three primary reasons for the bring me a rock phenomenon:
- The manager is also unsure about the expectations of the task because his/her own management hasn’t cascaded objectives. As such, the manager doesn’t want to risk failing on the task and is intentionally delaying, hoping for more information.
- The manager isn’t sure what they are looking for but is hoping to recognize it when they see it. The ill-defined task might be because they have not set up boundary conditions for how employees should operate.
- The manager isn’t decisive and, as time goes on, is influenced by new information or conflicting opinions. In this case, we might call it the shiny rock phenomenon.
As a manager, this simplest thing you can do to avoid the bring me a rock phenomenon is to be clear on your expectations. If you aren’t sure what you want, set up the task as an experiment with rapid iterations. That way, it’s clear that the correct outcome isn’t known in advance and no one feels like they failed. Most importantly, if the requirements change after you first request the task, update the people doing the work as soon as possible and explain why the requirements changed.
If you work for a bring-me-a-rock manager, ask as many questions as you can at the outset. Don’t be afraid it will make you look bad; it might actually help your manager better frame the request. It’s possible your questioning might frustrate this kind of manager but they are going to be frustrated by you not delivering what they asked for anyway.
To riff on the old saying, you’re stuck between a red rock and hard place.
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