A favorite game of Junior Officers everywhere is called Bring Me a Rock. If its not already a part of your daily routine, at some point you WILL play this game:
Boss: Bring me a rock.
You: What kind of rock?
Boss: You’re the expert. Dazzle me!
You: (Read books)
You: (Locate a big rock)
You: (Obtain hammer and chisel, refine big rock into finished product)
You: (Bring the rock to the Boss)
You: Here’s your rock sir.
Boss: (Ponders the rock, while scratching his chin)
Boss: That’s not exactly what I wanted.
You: What do you want, sir?
Boss: Bring me a rock.
This game can be infuriating for those on the receiving end, especially when it involves multiple iterations of waiting in line to get to the boss– nothing drives people crazy like wasting their time. Sadly, this game doesn’t go away with promotion– it exists at all levels in all bureaucratic organizations. Admirals play Bring Me a Rock with Captains, and CEOs play Bring Me a Rock with VPs. You’ll never escape it– but you can manage it. While there’s nothing you can do about a truly bad boss, the chances are that you are somehow contributing to the cycle. If you can identify your contribution and eliminate it, you can at least shorten the cycle, if not break it altogether.
Seek the Reference. If it can be done, there is a procedure or instruction somewhere depriving you of any discretion as to how to go about doing it. You must find this reference, verify that it is up to date, and apply it to your task. The product will probably be exactly what the boss has in mind, and if it isn’t, you’ve at least found an outstanding case for not changing it.
This is easier for some tasks than for others. You might have a hard time finding the reference for use of font colors in piloting brief presentations (I’m sure it exists, though). When real references apply, though, a solid review of governing instructions is something which should be done automatically. If you’re routing something without bouncing it off the appropriate references first, then you’re wasting your boss’s time, not the other way around.
Don’t let image concerns get in the way of efficiently doing your job.
Give Frequent Status Updates. Bosses eat this shit up. It not only keeps them informed, but also helps alleviate their anxiety that you’re dropping the ball on their tasking (trust me, they have their doubts about you). What it does for you, though, is give them ample opportunities to correct your course, ultimately saving your time. They may now have a better idea of what kind of rock they want than when you originally received the tasking, or maybe they now have more time and inclination to explain it. It could be that they were under some incorrect assumptions about what you already know, and it takes a few follow-on conversations to clear up just how much guidance you need. The best thing about giving brief status updates is that you can do it any old time, and don’t need to wait around for a formal interview to correct a course error.
One mistaken prejudice against giving status updates is fear of looking like a kiss-ass. The solution to this is easy: don’t kiss ass. You’re not seeking face-time for face-time’s sake, you’re exchanging information to facilitate the execution of tasking. Don’t let image concerns get in the way of efficiently doing your job.
Get in Your Boss’s Head. Your boss probably didn’t get to his level by arbitrarily and indiscriminately wasting man-hours. He probably knows something you don’t, and probably has a good reason for wanting things a certain way. Maybe he’s trying to teach you something. Maybe he’s punishing you for submitting shoddy work. Maybe he genuinely thinks you know more than you do- this happens often; as officers progress in their careers sometimes they forget what its like to not know things. Maybe the answer is clearly defined in a reference, and he wants you to go look it up.
Don’t Delay. Here we have the destructive consequence playing Bring Me a Rock. Sooner or later, every exasperated rock-bringer concludes that as long as there is time remaining until the hard deadline, the Boss is going to continue demanding changes. The natural progress of this thought is that the only way to stop the cycle is to delay presenting the rock to the boss until the last minute– that way the boss has no choice but to accept it.
Don’t do this. If the boss rejected your work, it’s not just to screw with you, it’s because he doesn’t like what you gave him. If you bring him something he doesn’t like but has no time to change, it’s really going to piss him off. If you’re in a never-ending Bring Me a Rock cycle, you need to confront the situation head-on, not weasel out of it. Scrutinize your processes, and ask coworkers or mentors for help. Forcing your boss to use a product he doesn’t like is never the answer.