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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8 Comments so far

  1. Sara Dunnigan

    November 3, 2009

    Great post – problem is the big rocks are HEAVY and they take along time to move. Time that exceeds most policy leaders elected terms and the public’s patience for action.

    Big rocks like education and issues impacting US firms global competitiveness (lowering regulatory burden and rewarding and encouraging innovation, for instance)don’t get addressed because they require game-changing strategies that undermine the status quo and involve uncertainty.

    For a country founded by renegades, we’ve grown pretty conservative in our thinking. The rewards for successfully dropping a grain of sand in our jar far exceeds the rewards for taking bold steps.

    Agree as well that the lines between public and private sector roles need to be erased. There’s simply too much interdependence to deny the need for collaboration and we miss opportunities to leverage resources, influence and expertise.

  2. Joe Ord

    November 4, 2009

    I enjoyed the lesson of this article. The lesson does not just apply to policy and economic development but to Sales and every day time management as well.

    I do agree this country needs more Big Picture or “Big Rock” Thinkers as the case may be.

    It has been my experience when the focus remains on the Big Picture, the little stuff tends to fall in place out of necessity, but when the focus is on the little stuff or the secondary details, the Big Picture never seems to get accomplished.

    To illustrate an example of your point, from a small business perspective, this is a story I’ve experienced firsthand.

    As a Commercial Real Estate Professional, I do a lot of networking and am involved in a networking organization with the goal of passing referrals to its members. Naturally the bigger the group of business people in the group, the greater the number of referrals may be passed. For a long time the group stated they wanted to grow its membership, but they got bogged down in details, of what would it do to the relationships in the group or we would have to change where we meet, etc. Finally a goal was set to double our membership and the thing we wanted people to worry about was inviting business owners to our meetings. When the focus became the “Big Rock” goal, our group doubled its size inside of three months, beating initial projections, and the goal was reset to a higher number! All of the secondary issues that everybody was so concerned with, just didn’t seem to matter anymore, because everyone was generating more business, so it didn’t matter if we had to move or if the group dynamic changed a little bit.

    Thank you for the Lesson!

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  4. Daniel Comp

    January 21, 2013

    As one of the 21 million solo-preneurs, I find the ‘waiting’ for the big rocks to change before the business climate in a community fits my growth or ambition is far too long. The internet moved my brick and mortar employer enterprise out of town, and across the globe.

    I see lots of boarded up main street storefronts all across America and talking to the proprietors, many of them say the same.

    I love the story, but the practice (in my opinion) misses the mark of ‘local’ economic development from the point of retaining ‘local’ dollars.

    Thanks for sharing the story Ed.

  5. Rollie Cole

    January 21, 2013

    The way Ed puts it — environmental improvements precedes deals, is CORRECT. The way it is often interpreted — focus on big firms and the others will follow is almost always BACKWARDS. What is a good community for startups and small firms will almost always be good for larger firms as well. But a community that is optimized for one or a few large firms is often NOT good for the rest, and highly vulnerable to risks faced by the big firms.

    I lived near Seattle when Boeing employed approximately one-third of the entire 3- county workforce until June 30, 1970, when the US Senate voted not to fund a supersonic jet, and Boeing’s employment fell to one-third of what it had been. Only AFTER that did the area work on being a good place for small firms, and saw Microsoft and other firms grow, and numerous others start and contribute, even though they stayed small.

    So place the big rocks first is good the way Ed means it, but BAD the way it is often interpreted.

    Rollie Cole, PhD, JD
    Founder, Fertile Ground for Startups & Small Firms

  6. Ed Burghard

    January 21, 2013

    Rollie – Great clarification. I honestly never took the lesson to mean focus on big business before small business. After reading your comment, I can see how it might be misinterpreted that way. As an aside, one of the reasons people tend to avoid addressing the big rocks is that they tend to be harder to work on than the little rocks or the sand. People like to list their accomplishments (with or without regard to impact). One surprise in my experience in working with government is the over emphasis on task completion versus making an impact. If you complete a lot of tasks in a year, your performance is viewed as strong. In the private sector, the emphasis is less on task completion and more on results. If you don’t deliver results, it doesn’t really matter how many tasks you completed. Tackling big rocks first tends to place the emphasis on delivering discontinuous results. Your Seattle example is a great illustration of the benefit of working on the big rocks.

  7. Sumit Roy

    January 26, 2013

    “The big rocks” usually involve common sense. And that’s quite rare.

    It seems easier to be busy with the gravel and the sand.

    Unfortunately most education systems still think of the big rocks as the 3 R’s.

    When actually education should promote curiosity rather than rules.

    Not being a citizen of the US, I probably don’t know enough of the “brand”, first hand, to be able to comment.

    But a country built on the big rock of Freedom should probably have fewer rules about who may or may not contribute.

    USA as a brand, for all I know, may not be built on the big rock of Freedom.

    But from here in India, the Statue of Liberty and the American Constitution certainly seems to suggest it is.

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