One of the most popular posts on this blog is my “Bring Me a Rock” anecdote. I don’t pretend to understand why this is so, but the internet is a fickle place. It’s been a while since I wrote the original post (2012), so I thought I’d revisit the rock-bringing exercise and suggest some reasons behind why it happens.
Once I got out of full-time corporate life, the “bring me a rock” phenomenon became less prevalent. Apparently it’s easier to ask on-staff, on-call technical writers to make up a document than an external contractor. I suspect this is because external contractors or consultants must have a specific statement of work written out for them before work can begin–and usually a period of performance (deadline). If a manager doesn’t know what the work will entail or when it’s due, it’s just easier to walk down the hall and pester someone already in the building.
I don’t mean to pick on managers (much), but sometimes the “bring me a rock” exercise is often a make-work task: the leader knows they need to produce something regarding a particular topic. It might be a white paper, an editorial, or a report–it’s just not due right now. It’s entirely possible that they received vague directives in the first place, and that vagueness flows downhill to the person most likely to produce something in a timely manner. The lack of direction on a given topic (usually) isn’t meant to frustrate the tech writer. The person asking for “something” about topic X just might not know what they or their leader want.
There are occasions where a leader is a bit sadistic and just wants to watch the technical writer jump through hoops to please or impress them. So, yes: sometimes the “bring me a rock” activity is deliberately designed to set you up for failure. There might not be much you can do about it, but you might learn from coworkers that the leader does this to them, too, so you’re not being singled out. However, sometimes you are being singled out, and when you fail enough times, the leader has an excuse to get rid of you. This happened to me once. The good news is that such people are usually rare. In 20+ years of professional writing, I’ve been fired only once, and it was due to the “bring me a rock” game.
The positive side of “bring me a rock” exercises is that if your leadership is trying to help you succeed, you get to influence–indirectly–what your leaders are saying. Since they don’t know what to say, this is your opportunity to write the first draft and shape what your organization does. It’s like being a manager without the paycheck but also without as much accountability if what you write isn’t accepted. Think of it as an opportunity to “steer the ship.” That can help your attitude a bit if you’re on your third, fifth, or tenth draft.