Imagine you are in a field full of rocks. Your boss says to you, “Bring me a rock”. You dutifully select a rock and present it to your boss. Your boss says, “This isn’t the rock I want. It should be bigger”. Undeterred, you go find a larger rock and return it to your boss. A somewhat annoyed boss replies, “This isn’t right either! It’s too flat!” A bit annoyed yourself, you respond “Well, what kind of rock do you want?” The boss replies, “I’ll know it when I see it”. One lesson from this story is to ask questions.

If you’ve ever had to redo work multiple times for your boss you’ve probably been a victim of “Bring me a rock”. Supervisors who do this to their employees typically fall into one of two camps:

  1. They think you know what they want.
  2. They don’t know what they want.

So what should you do if you don’t enjoy the “Bring me a rock” activity?

Ask questions!

Too often I watch employees accept new tasks but don’t ask questions. Perhaps they assume that any information that was available or relevant would have been provided. Or, maybe they assume that they will look stupid if they ask questions. Maybe some of these employees believe they know exactly what the boss wants (but don’t). So, how do you ask questions to avoid rework?

Ask questions like these:

  • What problem are we trying to solve by doing this work?
  • Where should I look for resources that I should make sure to review or consider?
  • What should I make sure to include when putting this together?
  • Are there templates I should be using?
  • Is there a timeline of when this should be complete?
  • Are there any hot button issues I should make sure to address? Or not include?
  • Who is the audience that will be receiving and/or using this?
  • Are there specific people or teams I should talk to while working on this? Who are they?
  • What would the ideal end-product look like?
  • Who else can I (should I) work with on this?
  • What is within scope for this task? What is out of scope?
  • How much flexibility do I have in what the final product looks like?

The purpose of asking these questions it to understand the parameters you must work within. These questions should start a dialogue and a discussion. When you ask questions like these, it’s intended to prompt your boss to explicitly discuss issues they may not have initially considered. It also helps them set expectations with you about what success will look like.

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Keep in mind that this is not an inquisition. I do not recommend going through each of these questions for every task. Depending on the task, some may not make sense to ask. Some bosses will not feel comfortable answering these questions. If this is the case, you will need to listen for when your supervisor is getting to their limit of willingness to answer.

Not comfortable with asking questions?

Try reading Power questions: Build relationships, win business, and influence others or check out this article by Life Hack How to be amazingly good at asking questions.

Have you experienced this “bring me a rock” phenomenon? Share what happened and how you handled it in the comments below.

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