“Is that the biggest rock in your pond?” is an expression you sometimes hear around my part of the country.
It’s usually directed at someone who’s trying to tackle a tough problem (or more often, problems) with limited resources. The question is all about leverage and priorities.
And about making hard choices.
The first time I heard it I had to ask – “What in the $%% are you talking about?”
You have to understand that nobody calls them “ponds” in my country. Around here, they are “dirt tanks” and a pond is just a little water feature you might find in somebody’s backyard somewhere.
So whenever I hear somebody pose this question, I think back to my grandfather’s farm in the Ozarks. Hilly, rocky country made up mostly of limestone, you had to be careful when running a dozer not to dig too deeply into the soil – otherwise the water would simply drain away leaving you with what looked like a small impact crater. You don’t have to build them very big since the annual rainfall there is about 44 inches or so.
Anyway, those “ponds” are usually small circular water catchments with the dirt and debris pushed out by a dozer to make the pond itself. Think of an earthen bowl of water surrounded by a small earth berm – maybe ten feet high. To get to the water, from almost every direction, you have to walk up and over the berm. The crater area – down near the water’s edge was usually low enough that you couldn’t see outside the bowl.
As a boy, on my summer vacations, I would sometimes fish for bluegill and sunfish in those same ponds or catch bullfrogs for my father’s supper. I would sit down near the water on a blanket or an overturned bucket and while the time away until darkness overtook me; when the swallows would make their evening runs skimming along the surface of the water while the bats and lightning bugs danced all around.
Getting back to the question: Imagine you’re sitting near the water’s edge with me. Remember you and I are in an earth bowl. I give you the job of keeping the surface of the water as calm as possible while I instruct a group of folks outside the bowl to begin chunking rocks over the edge and into the water. Rocks of all sizes soon come flying in from every direction. Some big, some small; and some make a single splash while others skip a time or two before they sink out of sight.
As the person in charge of the water’s surface, you can stop the folks with the rocks. The catch is that you can only stop one person at a time and you have a time limit in which to get the water surface as calm as possible.Where do you begin?
The smart answer is to begin with the person throwing the biggest rock. And then the next biggest, and the next, on down the line until you run out of rock throwers or you run out of time.
Get the picture?
Now imagine that pond to be your life, your business, your farm, or your project launch. Each of those rocks represent a problem you have to face. Just as before, some are small, some are large, and some come in multiples. Where do you start?
With the biggest rock, of course.
I know it sounds simple, but it’s not. You see, most of us prefer to deal with problems we can easily solve rather than face up to the really tough ones. Working on those small problems -eliminating those “smaller rocks” - makes us feel productive, but all too often it’s only a false sense of accomplishment.
How you choose to deal with the large rocks that come your way will define you, your business, and your future.
Ever take the easy way out?
Maybe ignore the “boulders” in your path and deal instead with just the “pebbles”?I know I have.
And it’s come back to bite me every time.
Stay tuned for a real-world practical example in Part 2.
*first appeared in Capital Thinking, April 5, 2012