Rocks, Pebbles and Sand retrospective – How do we get the most out of our time?

One of my teams was struggling with an overwhelming overload of work. They felt the pressure of growing expectations from the organization and – at the same time – a lot of ad hoc work that wasn’t on the backlog. They wanted to meet everyone’s expectations and were always willing to help everyone. But how to find the balance between planned and unplanned work, and focus on the important stuff?

I wanted to challenge the team by looking differently at their responsibilities, by reflecting on how to get the most out of their time by categorizing different types of work and prioritizing them. So here’s what we did.

Rocks, Pebbles and Sand Retrospective

First I showed the team this short inspirational video: The Rocks, Pebbles and Sand Story.

It’s about a professor that took a large empty jar en filled it with rocks. He asked his students, is the jar full? They answered: ‘yes’. Then he put the pebbles in, shook it lightly, and they filled the open spaces between the rocks. ‘Is the jar full now?’ he asked. The answer was again: ‘yes’. Then he showed the students there were still spaces to fill by pouring in the sand.

The jar signifies our life – and in this case – our team. I asked the team to take a few minutes of silent writing and define our rocks, pebbles and sand:

  • Rocks are the really important things. If all else was lost but the rocks remained, it would still be meaningful.
  • The pebbles are the other things that are meaningful.
  • The sand is the remaining small stuff. If you put it in the jar first, there is no room for the things that are really important.

Defining our rocks, pebbles and sand helped the team members to get on the same page about what’s really important. We reflected on what kind of work the team spends the most time on, and we found that we spent too much time on the remaining small stuff. Our jar was filled with sand and it kept us from focussing on the rocks.

We discussed what the team needs in order to focus on the important things again and defined a few practical steps to improve our focus on the rocks.

This exercise really helped the team to look differently at their broad range of responsibilities, and to decide what to really focus on. Knowing this made it easier for the team to manage their customer’s expectations. But most importantly, it helped the team members to get rid of the paralyzing feeling of being overwhelmed.

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