• Making “Big Rock” Decisions

    Stephen Covey trained the modern world to manage time by using the metaphor of filling a jar with rocks of varied sizes. The bigger rocks symbolized more time-consuming tasks. He demonstrated that by putting the biggest rocks in the jar first, followed by the smaller rocks, he was able to eventually put a greater number of rocks in the jar. In other words, he used his time strategically to achieve a greater number of tasks.   For a YouTube video of Stephen Covey demonstrating this time-management strategy, click here.

    A similar concept can be used to identify the decisions that are likely to require additional or different attention from elected officials. The “big rock” decisions might warrant more specialized expertise, expanded community input, extensive financial resources, or multi-disciplinary planning, for example.

    What makes an issue a “big rock” for a governing board?   Chances are that experienced decision-makers will be able to think of examples in every category. They will also be able to enumerate the benefits of going into the decision-making process knowing that it warrants more time or attention somehow, rather than figuring that out after the next election. Some governing board members will also have stories to tell of underestimating a seemingly “simple” decision that ultimately polarized their communities or generated a law suit from a dissatisfied resident.

    A “big rock” issue has one or more of these seven features. An example is provided for each one:

    1. It impacts a large number of people.
      • Whether or not to increase property taxes
    2. It involves a significant investment of financial resources
      • Whether or not to proactively replace aging infrastructure
    3. It is a “fork-in-the-road” decision.
      • Whether or not to allow high density housing downtown
    4. It impacts a small number of people, but in a big way.
      • Whether or not to purchase public buses that are wheelchair accessible
    5. It involves functions that support the community.
      • Whether or not to offer incentives to attract new businesses
    6. It is something we can influence.
      • Whether or not to encourage exercise and wellness through the development       of recreational resources
    7. It is highly visible or symbolic.
      • Whether or not to tear down a historic elementary school

    This list provides guidance for governing boards that want to both act strategically and minimize or, hopefully, avoid surprises or negative community reactions. If the decision involves a “big rock,” slow down the process for receiving and considering information. Expand the strategies for practicing transparency. Create special opportunities informing the public and receiving input in return. Collect and consider the hard data, while still respecting the personal stories that will be attached to the decision.

    Proactively identifying and respecting the demands of big rock decisions can offer strategic benefits, even if it requires more time or effort in the short run.

    If you have encountered other types of big rocks or successfully employed new strategies for dealing with them, please share your experiences in the comments.

    Margaret Henderson joined the School of Government in 1999. As director of the Public Intersection Project, she researches and communicates strategies that strengthen cross-sector working relationships for more effective public problem-solving. Her current responsibilities also include teaching in the School’s MPA program.

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