Improving Company Focus with Rocks

Have you ever had a week where you look back on Friday, and you just can’t remember what you’ve done all week? Sure, you’ve been busy, but somehow you don’t really have anything to show for it.

And how about this: have you ever made plans to tackle a big project over a period of multiple weeks or months, only to look back later and realize—you hardly made any progress?

Don’t feel too bad, this happens to most of us! Something always comes up: colleagues interrupt you with burning questions, problems crop up that need to be addressed. And let’s not forget your day-to-day responsibilities. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day.

Now imagine this happening on the scale of your company. People getting bogged down in day-to-day busywork and putting out fires, at the cost of things that are less urgent but more important. That’s a lot of unrealized potential.

When you get down to it, this is really a problem of focus. One good way to address this is to start working with quarterly Rocks.

What are Rocks?

Rocks were first introduced in Stephen Covey’s First Things First. In the book, Covey asks us to imagine an empty glass cilinder on a table. Next to the cilinder are four containers, containing rocks, gravel, sand and water. The cilinder is all the time you have in a day. The rocks represent your main priorities, the gravel your day-to-day responsibilities, and the sand represents interruptions. The water, finally, is everything else that happens in a day.

In a typical work day, most people tend to pour in the water first, then the sand, then the gravel, only to find out that there’s no room for the rocks.

However, if you were to prioritize the rocks and put those in first, then the gravel, then the sand and finally the water, everything falls into place much easier. And even if some stuff gets left out, at least your main priorities, the things that really mattered, are taken care of.

Here’s another version of the story, applied to personal life choices.

Rocks in practice

Below is my recommendation for putting Rocks into practice at your company. I have adapted them from the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) as described in the books Traction and Get A Grip by Gino Wickman. EOS is a comprehensive, practical system for managing SMB’s. In my experience, it lends itself extremely well to the light management style preferred by many videogame companies.

The first thing to do is cut up your year into quarters. The whole point of Rocks is to make it easier to focus on the things that matter, and it’s almost impossible to maintain that focus for a full year. It’s much easier to plan and execute in a 90 day window.

Now, onto the Rocks themselves.

Establishing your Rocks

1. Make a list

Every quarter, your team meets for a full day to review the company vision and identify the 3 to 7 main priorities for the next quarter. These are the things that absolutely need to happen to stay on track for the goals set out for the year.

To start, have everyone in the team list absolutely everything they think needs to happen in the next 90 days.

2. Prioritize

Next, discuss the list and whittle it down until you have 3 to 7 Rocks that represent the most important priorities. One way to do this is to do multiple rounds of Keep, Kill, Combine (KKC). For every item on the list, discuss if the item should be kept, killed, or combined with another item on the list. Keep going until the list is down to a maximum of 3 to 7 Rocks, preferably closer to 3 than 7. Less is more here.

3. Make them SMART

Define each Rock in such a way that it is crystal clear what needs to happen. In the next quarterly meeting, you have to be able to say without a shadow of a doubt whether the Rock has been finished, or not.

One way to do this is to make each Rock SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. “Roll out and review three marketing campaigns for games in our back catalog” is a good Rock. “Look into game engine alternatives” is not.

4. Assign Rock owners

Assign every Rock to a member of the team. Each Rock is owned by only one team member to ensure accountability. The owner is responsible for driving the Rock to completion by establishing a timeline, calling meetings and pushing people to contribute or deliver.

5. Pick personal Rocks

Every team member can pick additional Rocks to fill out their plate. Choose these Rocks from the list of killed company Rocks and any unfinished Rocks from the previous quarter, for a max of 3 to 7. Again, less is more.

Anything left over after everyone has picked their individual Rocks is left for the next quarter, or until it resolves itself.

6. Fill in the Rock sheet

Grab a piece of paper or your favorite note taking software, and fill in the company Rocks and each of the team members’ individual Rocks. These Rocks are your highest priority for the next 90 days, and the list helps to hold each other accountable.

Your Rock list is sacred. You don’t add any new stuff to the Rocks during the quarter. Anything that comes up that could qualify as a Rock should be saved as an optional Rock for next quarter.

7. Share the Rocks

After each quarterly meeting, share the Rocks with the rest of the company. These are the company’s top priorities for the next 90 days, and everyone should know this. It can help employees tremendously to know how they can contribute to reaching those goals.

8. Departmental Rocks

Once you’ve got the hang of working with Rocks, it is fairly easy to have your other departments adopt them as well. It may be a less natural fit for development teams that work in sprints, but departments like marketing and sales should have no problem adapting to the quarterly rhythm. Having everyone working on the same priorities in the same rhythm can be extremely beneficial for focus, productivity and team spirit. The only difference is that outside of the leadership team, everyone should only have 1 to 3 Rocks.

Teams should aim to finish about 80% of their Rocks each quarter, but it can take a bit of time to hit that number. Keep focussing on your Rocks and hold each other accountable, and you’ll get there in no time!

Next steps

Here are some next steps you can take if this essay has piqued your interest

  • Subscribe to my newsletter to get new essays just like this one straight in your inbox, every two weeks on Tuesday.
  • Read summaries of Traction, Get a Grip and more business and management books by getting Better Book Notes for Busy Game Professionals.
  • Get the books on Amazon. Traction describes the system in more detail, Get A Grip is written in narrative form and is more easily digestible.
  • If you really want to dive in, I help videogame companies implement the full EOS system, including Rocks, and I can help you too. Schedule an introductory meeting through my calendly page and let’s see if there’s a fit!