Focus on the Big Rocks

Characature 3x2This story has traveled around the private sector leadership circuit for a few years now. Even if you have heard it before, I think it is still a timely message to consider:

Is The Jar Full Yet?

A leading authority once concluded his lecture to a group of high-powered business executives by saying, “Okay, it’s now time for a quiz.” He proceeded to pull out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and sat it on a table in front of him. Next, he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?”

Everyone in the group answered “Yes!”

“Really?” he said. The man reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full now?” By now they were on to him. “Probably not,” one answered. “Good,” he replied. He reached under the table for a second time and brought out a bucket of sand. As he dumped the sand in, it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel.

Once more he asked the group, “Is the jar full?” “No,” they shouted. “Good!” he replied, as he grabbed a pitcher of water and filled the jar to the brim.

Finally, he looked out at the class and asked, “Who can tell me the point of this exercise?” One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is that no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit more things into it!”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point at all. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you will never get them in.

What Are The Big Rocks In Economic Development?

In economic development, it is often hard to focus on the big rocks (e.g., public policy reform and investment in infrastructure upgrade or asset creation) that will make communities more competitive for capital investment. Often, too much time and resources seem to be invested in the sand and gravel work of deal attraction and processing – definitely important work, but also too frequently all consuming.

One suggestion is for communities to periodically consider taking 2-steps back and assess their core promise (their brand) to ensure it is relevant, competitive and representative of the authentic experience of current businesses and employees. Developing a 2 – 3 year strategic plan to strengthen a community’s core promise is a process for making the big rocks visible and ensuring adequate tactical focus.

In my personal experience, discontinuous brand growth on the businesses I managed was typically preceded by a major product improvement (a big rock change). I believe the same likely holds true in economic development. Major improvement in capital attraction, retention or expansion will likely be preceded by a meaningful improvement in a community’s business climate.

Taking the time to focus on the big rocks has the potential to pay dividends. It is also an exercise to enroll private sector leadership in a way that helps demonstrate that their business health needs and the needs of the community are interdependent. Not only do you create an even more relevant and competitive brand promise, you build the loyalty of your current private sector partners in the process.


I would be curious to hear about your personal experience in focusing on the big rocks. What do you find to be the barriers to taking the time to do the exercise? What is the frequency you have discovered to be most workable to actually do the work? What are the benefits you have realized when you have done some “big rock work”? What are some of the big rocks you see for Brand America that should be focused on?

Thank you in advance for leaving a comment that shares either your experience or your thinking about the importance of focusing on the big rocks.

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