When dealing with one or multiple project stakeholders I often use the story below as the start of a planning workshop. Sometimes it’s at the initiation phase of a project, but more often during re-scoping of projects because of time and/or budget reasons.
A philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a large empty jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks about two inches in diameter. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The students laughed. The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.
The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and proceeded to pour the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the grains of sand. The students laughed again.
“Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this is your life. The rocks are the important things — your family, your partner, your health, your children — things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else. The small stuff.
“If you put the sand into the jar first, there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and change a light bulb.
“Take care of the rocks first — the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”
One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of beers.”
After telling the story I draw a big jar on a white board and ask my stakeholder what the big rocks are for their project. What key elements drive the most benefits? If we could realize only ONE thing, what would this be? Why?
When you have multiple stakeholders (sometimes with conflicting interests) this exercise will help you make it clear to them that you cannot do everything for everybody. And you will have all the right people in the room to come to an agreement.
After we have defined and agreed on the big rocks, we check to see if they all fit in the jar. When they don’t, we start talking about a bigger jar (more time and/or budget), or fewer rocks (scope reduction). When selecting scope reduction, please be very aware of value creep.
Only when the big rocks are all in the jar do we start discussing the pebbles.
And yes, having a beer afterwards really helps with your stakeholder relationships as well.
Originally published at https://www.henricodolfing.com.