The parable of Bring me a Rock
A young man travels across oceans and seas to ask a wise old man about how to achieve enlightenment. The young man had been having a rough time in the world. Sometimes overthinking things, sometimes underestimating things, never really sure how much effort or energy to put into anything he does.
When he meets the wise man, the wise man says, “that’s easy, just bring me a rock, and all will become clear.”
So the young man runs outside to the path, grabs a grey pebble that seems to sparkle, polishes it with his shirtsleeve, and returns grinning ear to ear. He hands the rock to the wise man.
“Sorry son, that isn’t what I meant. I suggest you put a bit more effort in before you see me again.”
The young man leaves crestfallen but determined. He hires an excavation crew and a backhoe and digs up a 2-ton boulder shaped like a rutabaga. The most unique and massive stone he has ever seen in his life. He journeys back to the wise man with the boulder on a semi-truck with a full compliment of moving and shifting tools to remove it from the truck.
“Son, with all due respect, you seem to have not understood me properly. What you need to provide me with, to gain enlightenment, requires a lot more effort and polish.”
The young man toils for several years in a diamond mine looking for just the right size and clarity. He unearths a whopper worth millions. He then finds the world’s best diamond cutter and pays him an exorbitant fee for a perfect cut. This has taken several years and when he finds the wise man his beard is several inches longer and his health seems to be waning. The young man presents the wise man with the diamond, wrapped in silk, with a chorus of trumpets.
“Young man!” The wise man shouts with certain frustration. “I told you to find a rock so many years ago and still you haven’t made any progress. Perhaps I should pass my wisdom on to someone whos is better able to take my simple direction” the wise man says.
The young man leaves in a huff. He is despondent as he stumbles away.
A young lady is standing nearby and she whispers to him, “ask him to describe the rock.” Then the young lady walks away.
The young man walks back to the wise man and quietly asks, “dear sir, would it trouble you too much to describe the sort of rock you seek?’
The old man smirks and pauses. “Why I’d love a nice black stone about the size of a matchbook. Ideally it would be flat. You see my table here is listing, and I’d like to prop it up to make it stable. I measured the gap years ago and its about 2cm in height.”
The young man is speechless.
“In fact,” the old man says, “if you go around the corner and down two blocks, there is a small pile of these rocks that my friend Steve has collected over the years. I’d reckon he’d be willing to give you one for a few cents.”
The young man smiles wryly too now, understanding the lesson. “So the message of enlightenment you are giving me is to ask for clarity if I don’t understand something?”
“Indeed,” says the old man, “indeed.”
Has this happened to you? “Team, I need a written x plan from you by Monday so we can review with y important executive or investor.”
You immediately bound to your desk and begin putting together the plan based upon what you know about the meeting. But did you stop to ask what the plan needed to look like? What format is preferred? How much time you might have? Who is the desired audience? What is the preferred outcome? What could go wrong?
I often see this happen with cross-functional teams. Where people are so hungry to dive in and their history and experience has conditioned them to know what needs to be done, that they often miss the mark. Or maybe they are afraid to ask for guidance or direction.
Its OK to ask for clarity. In fact, its your responsibility in order to be effective.
Years ago I was asked by a manager for a business plan for a specific partnership. He asked me late on a Friday and wanted it Monday afternoon. I cancelled all of my weekend plans and then feverishly worked straight through the weekend and delivered a 99 page PowerPoint deck promptly on Monday afternoon. It was a sleepless weekend and I was bleary eyed, but grinning as I presented the deck to my manager.
My managers response was a look of astonishment and deep sadness.
“Dude, all I wanted was for you to use the Excel template Cheryl in accounting uses for these things. Just updating the numbers and changing the logos. What the heck is this?”
The learning cost me a weekend of my time, but has proven priceless in saved time over the years.
Perhaps the opposite sort of confusion is worse
In another partner planning scenario where I missed the mark, I was given a long lead time to get a plan prepared, something like a quarter in advance. There was no template provided and I got the [wrong] impression that this was not a super important deliverable.
So I turned up with a simple outline and OK-ish one pager that completely missed the mark, again.
“What is this? I gave you months to work on this. I expected a solid 40-hours of work to drive this output. How did you prioritize this project” my manager said sadly.
I equivocated a bit and made a lame excuse about travel and not thinking this was a priority given my revenue goals. I also was a bit passive aggressive commenting that, if this were important I am sure I would have been given more guidance.
She waited, I swear ten seconds before responding, and said, “if you needed help or clarity, I’d have expected you would have asked.”
Writers note: this was a parable handed down to me during my first few years at Microsoft and was relayed as a sort of internal folk lore. I am not sure if the parable itself requires attribution. If it does, I will. This is my personal interpretation based upon experience.